Skip to main content

Full text of "Blackguard"

See other formats


BOOK CARD 

Please keep this card in 
book pocket 



en a 
en 3 
a> 3 
0> a 
a> S 
e> 8 





THE LIBRARY OF THE 

UNIVERSITY OF 

NORTH CAROLINA 

AT CHAPEL HILL 




ENDOWED BY THE 

DIALECTIC AND PHILANTHROPIC 

SOCIETIES 



o) SI 


/ aHi 


1 


o> St 


/ ^^^^Pf 


1 


o> S ' 


jl ^^^K' ^ 


f 


e.SI 


Aw '^^B ^ 


, 


ei S 


Ah '^^hH ^ 


•- 


a» 7 


|HII> 


. 


en « 


/ nla^^^l ^ 


• 


e> S 


/^^H^- 




0> 3 




a* S 


il^^^^^H 


; 


a* S 


V^^^^^^B 


'• 


c»» » 


^mPw<^ 


' 


v> 3 


^^n 




<n R 


|»' ' ^T 


' 




MJ 





kil 

CPi 



PS3503 
.0 17 



Blackguard 

Ijodenheirrz^ 




CUdlbceStnilfi 






CHICAGO 

COVICI-M'GEE • PUBLISHERS 
'925 



Copyright 1923 

Covici-cMcGee 

Chicago 

First Printing, March, iq23 



CONTENTS 

^ART ONE 
The Stru^^le Pa^e 1 

^ART TWO 
The Knife Pa^e 121 

^ART THREE 
Instigation Pa^e 181 



891C4G 



PART I 
THE STRUGGLE 



BLACKGUARD 




The Stmg,g,le 

CHAPTER I. 

ARL Felman stepped from a train 
at the Union Station of a mid- 
western, American city. His 
young face, partly obscured by a 
blonde stubble of beard, was a 
passive concealment, and his thin 
lips and long nose did not hold that stalwart sleek- 
ness which one associates with earth. If some 
joker had taken a Gothic effigy of Christ, trimmed 
its beard, dressed it in grey and dirty clothes, and 
forced upon it an unwilling animation, he would 
have produced an exact duplicate of Carl's aspect 
and gestures. 

In the emotional confusion of the railroad- 
station, with its reluctant farewells and gushing 
greetings, Carl walked alone and abstracted, 
and he treated the scene as though it were a 
feverishly unreal mixture of drama and travesty. 
He strode with the careful haste of one who seeks 



BLACKGUARD 

to escape from an irritating dream but knows at 
the same time that his efforts are futile. He was 
without baggage, and his face held the strain 
that comes from battling with open spaces and 
strange faces — the hunted question of the hobo. 
His face showed two masks, one transparent and 
passive and the other tense and protesting. He 
had ridden for thirty-six hours in the chair of a 
day-coach, without food or sleep, and he was 
walking to the home of his parents because he 
lacked the necessary car-fare, but these circum- 
stances were only partly responsible for his air 
of spectral weariness. He knew the stunned 
exhaustion of a man whose mind and heart had 
broken their questions against unfriendly walls, 
and at intervals he became immersed in vain 
efforts to understand the meaning of his wounds. 
During the twenty-one years of his life he had 
resembled an amateur actor, forced to play the 
part of a troubled scullion in a first act that be- 
wildered and enraged him. At high-school he had 
been known as "the poet-laureate of room six- 
teen," a title invented by snickering pupils, and 
his timidly mystic lyrics about sandpipers, violets, 
and the embracing glee of the sun, had gained an 
unrestrained admiration from his English teach- 
ers. Teachers of English in American high-schools 



BLACKGUARD 

are not apt to insist upon originality and mental 
alertness in expression, since their own lives are 
usually automatic acceptances of a minor role, and 
Carl became convinced that writing poetry was 
only a question of selecting some applauded poet 
of the past and imitating his verse. "You must 
say the inspiring things that they have said, but 
see that your words are a little different from 
theirs," he said to himself, and his words — "a little 
different" — became slightly incongruous upon the 
thoughts and emotions of Tennyson and Long- 
fellow, the latter two having been selected because 
they seemed easier to flatter than other poets such 
as Browning and Swinburne. Another Carl Fel- 
man watched this proceeding from an inner dun- 
geon but lacked the courage to interrupt it, for to 
a boy the opinions of his teachers, delivered with 
an air of weary authority, seem as inexorable as 
the laws of the Talmud or the blazing sincerity 
of sunlight. Carl was nearing seventeen at this 
time — a lonely, vaguely rebellious, anaemic, dumb- 
ly sullen boy, who tried in his feeble way to caress 
the life-chains which he did not dare to break. 
His parents, middle-aged Jews with starved imag- 
inations and an anger at the respectable poverty 
of their lives, looked upon his poetic desires with 
mingled feelings of elation and uneasiness. 



BLACKGUARD 

The phenomenon of an adolescent poet in the 
family is always liked and distrusted by simple 
people — liked because it pleasantly teases the 
monotone of their existence, and distrusted be- 
cause they fear, without quite knowing why, that 
it will develop into a being at variance with the 
fundamental designs of their lives. Carl's pa- 
rents clucked their tongues in puzzled admiration 
when he read them one of his poems, and then, 
with a note of loquacious fear in their voices, told 
( him that he must look upon writing as a "side- 
line" — a pretty, lightly smirking distraction that 
could snuggle into the hollows of a business-man's 
life. Carl, who liked the importance of carrying 
secret plots within him, did not answer this sug- 
gestion, or gave it a sulky monosyllable, and his 
reticence frightened his parents. The simple per- 
son is reassured by garrulity, even when it attacks 
but can derive nothing from silence save the feel- 
ing of an unseen dagger. The Felmans wanted 
their son to attain the money that had seduced 
and eluded their longings, but deeper than that, 
they yearned for him to place a colored wreath 
over the brows of their tired imaginations — one 
that could convince them that their lives had not 
been mere sterile and oppressed bickerings. The 
father, a traveling-salesman for a whiskey-firm, 



BLACKGUARD 

wanted Carl to be prosperous and yet daring over 
his cups while the mother felt that ho might 
become a celestial notary-public, placing his seal 
upon the unnoticed documents of her virtues. 

Carl experienced the uncertain dreads of a 
dwarf futilely attempting to squirm from a ring 
of perspiring golden giants known to the world, 
and not even sure of whether he ought to escape, 
but knowing only that a vicious and unformed <! 
ache within him found little taste for the flat- 
footed routines of clerk or salesman. Upon 
another planet this initial writhing is doubtless 
offered the consolation of better compromises, 
but the treadmill uproars of this earth merely 
increased Carl's feelings of shrinking anger. 

"Oh, well, I'll work in a store or sell something, 
and make money. Life won't let you do anything 
else," he said to himself. "But inside of me, m-m, 
there I'll do as I please. I'll make a country where 
poets and other begging men live in little huts 
on the obscure hills and rear their families of 
thoughts and emotions, with a haughty peaceful- 
ness." 

He shunned the people around him as much as 
possible, studying his lessons in a precisely weary 
manner and squatting on the grass of a public 
park near his home where he wrote his dimly 



BLACKGUARD 

placid lyrics to the sun and moon. He had no 
companions at school, for the children around him 
were quick to jibe at any remark of his that con- 
tained a searching wraith of thought, and he did 
not join in the school's minor activities because 
of his angry pride at the giggling accusations of 
queerness which he received from the other boys 
and girls. They regarded him for moments as an 
enticing target, reviling his exact grammar and 
mild manners, but for the most part they paid 
little heed to this grotesque atom lost in the swirl 
of their games and plans. In a smaller school 
the strident inquisitiveness of average children 
thrown upon each other might have overwhelmed 
him, but in the immense city high-school he 
managed effortlessly to isolate himself, and the 
children, once having dubbed him poet-laureate — 
sarcastically mimicking the phraseology of their 
elders — proceeded to forget about him. 

When at length he was graduated, he begged 
his parents to send him to college, desperately 
fighting for another long period in which he could 
brush aside dry information and rhyme "earth" 
with "birth," since he preferred the frolic of 
misty promises to a world of prearranged shouts 
and sweating dreads. But his parents felt that 
their period of uneasy indulgence had inevitably 

6 



BLACKGUARD 

ended, and words trooped from them in right- 
eously redundant regiments. 

"You're a big boy now, yes, a big boy, and you 
know that we've sacrificed everything to give you 
a good education," said Mrs. Felman. "Not that 
we regret it, no indeed, we only hope that it helps 
you to get along in life, but this college stuff, 
now, is a lot of foolishness. That's only for people 
with rich parents, or them that can afford to go 
a long time without working; and not only that, 
but it fills your head, you know, with a lot of 
nonsense. It's time now that you go out and make 
money to help your parents. You know that we're 
just barely able to get along on what your father 
makes. Not that we're begging you for your help, 
you understand, but you should be only too proud 
to give comfort to your parents. Uncle Emil can 
use a smart boy like you in his clothing business 
and he told us only the other night that he'd give 
you a good job the minute you come down. You've 
got to give up those writing notions of yours! 
They don't bring you in anything, and a man 
must go out into the world and make his own 
living. Writing is no business for a strong, sen- 
sible boy!" 

Carl listened with a feeling of impotent anger. 
Yes, they were probably right in their commands 



BLACKGUARD 

and he would be a scoundrel if he refused to obey 
them and rescue them from their poverty ; but — 
well, he preferred to be a scoundrel. "Beyond a 
doubt I'm a lazy, ungrateful wretch, and all that 
I care for is to put words together — that seems 
to relieve me somehow — but say, how about stick- 
ing to what I am?" he asked himself. "I know 
perfectly well that I'll never change, and if I make 
a liar out of the rest of my life that won't make 
me any the less guilty. Besides, it's funny, but I 
don't know whether I want to change. There's 
something satisfactory about being a scoundrel — 
it lets you do the things that you want to do; 
while being good, as far as I can see, is just pre- 
tending that you like to do the things that you 
don't want to do. Well, I'm not going to stand for 
that! I've got to choose between hurting my 
parents and hurting myself and they are going 
to be the victims. This will be mighty selfish, I 
know, but I guess I'm a naturally selfish person. 
Anyway, I don't feel much love for them and I 
don't see that it will help them if I try to hide 
my feelings. They would find out sooner or later 
what an inhuman person I am and they might as 
well find out now." 

Carl answered the verbose commands and advice 
of his parents with a mechanical "yes" now and 

8 



BLACKGUARD 

then — a small shield to protect the inner unfolding 
of his thoughts — and walked into his bedroom, 
where he rested his dull broodings upon a pillow. 
The lives of some men represent a scale of gradu- 
ally increasing compromises with, or victories 
against, the forces surrounding them, while other 
men crowd their decision into one early moment 
and walk swiftly down an unchanging road. The 
boy with Carl died upon the bed in his room and 
the fumbling, stiffly vindictive beginning of a man 
rose and walked into the street, with an evil smile 
petrifying the softness of his face. In this emo- 
tional birth he became to himself a huge black 
criminal staggering beneath the weight of unre- 
leased plots, and he derived an angry joy 
from this condition, reveling in the first guilty 
importance that had invaded his meekly repressed 
Me. 

With the inquisitive grin of one who is quite 
convinced that he is an embryonic monster, he 
arose at five o'clock on the next morning, stole 
into the bedroom of his sleeping parents, pilfered 
fifteen dollars from the trousers of his father, and 
took the train to a distant city, where he enlisted 
in the United States Army. He had first intended 
to do this at the nearest recruiting station, but 
with the triumphant shrewdness of a budding 



BLACKGUARD 

knave he decided that if he joined the army in 
another city he could more easily escape being 
arrested for his theft. He had robbed his parents 
with an actually quivering delight, feeling that 
it was the first gesture of his attack upon an 
unresponsive world. In joining the army he had 
not been lured by the recruiting poster's gaudy 
lies concerning "adventure, travel, and recreation," 
but his reasons were more practical and involved. 
He longed for the stimulus of a physical motion 
that would not be concerned with the capture of 
pennies and he believed that he could be more 
alone with himself in a new whirlpool than in the 
drably protected alcove from which he had fled. 
He felt also that if he were going to prey upon 
the world he must make haste to learn the tricks 
and signals of a rogue and pay for this knowledge 
with physical pain and weariness. 

The details of his army life need not interfere 
with this quickly sculptured hint of his birth. He 
emerged from the lustreless w^orkshop of the army 
with the patient bitterness of one whose dreams 
have become the blundering slaves of a colorless 
reality. For some time he wandered about the 
country, in a stumbling dance with various kinds 
( of manual labor — cotton picking, wood chopping, 
factory work. At intervals he engaged in little 

lO 



BLACKGUARD 

thefts, such as the money from a drunken man's 
pockets, the purses of rooming-house landladies, 
and articles from the counters of shops, and used 
them for a week or two of leisure in which he 
wrote of nightingales inebriated with the fra- 
grance of lilac bushes, or dawn robbing the hills 
of their favorite shawl. 

His role of desultory sneak-thief failed to cause 
within him the slightest shame or self-reproach 
and he felt that his longings were using trivial 
weapons in a furtive manner merely to protect a 
secretly delicate bravery within him. 

"I don't care whether the world is filled with 
poets or not," he sometimes said to himself. "If 
it were, I might want to be a carpenter or a clerk 
then and make that my form of rebellion. I don't 
know. But the world wants to be filled with car- 
penters and clerks, and it's not as fair as I am. 
The unfairness makes me angry and I strike 
against it.' . . . You must guard your only reason 
for living. All that I want to do is to keep on "^ 
writing, and since no one cares to pay me for this 
kind of work I'll have to arrange for the payment 
myself. When I do hard work during the day 
I'm too tired to write at night, and the only way 
in which I can get leisure time for writing is to 
steal. If this is evil, it's been forced upon me. 

II 



BLACKGUARD 

Of course, I'd much rather steal out in the open, 
but that would instantly bring me to jail. No, this 
complicated game known as a world is unaware 
of my existence and I must be equally absent- 
minded in my own attitude." 

His youthful gesture of contorted cynicism, 
qualified a bit by the remaining ghosts of a naively 
wounded idealism, made him resolve to become 
a crafty underdog — a man who had become 
obsessed with the task of findmg his voice and 
was using every possible subterfuge and device 
to protect this obsession, leering at the forces 
that were attempting to mtrude upon his religious 
concentration. Right and wrong to him were 
unfair scarecrows that slipped from the huge 
indifference of his surroundings and demanded 
an attention which they were unwilling to give 
in return. Perhaps he was a mmor knave, seek- 
ing to rationalize his mstmcts for crime, and 
perhaps he merely held a naked determination 
like that of a certain immoral slayer and plun- 
derer known as Nature. The question is a frayed 
one and derives little benefit from the tensions 
of exhausted arguments. Carl was constantly 
harassed by a feeling of inarticulate insignificance, 
and the poems which he twisted from his heart, 
on park benches and in the long weeds of ditches 

12 



BLACKGUARD 

beside railroad tracks, were like bunches of 
forget-me-nots plucked by a dirty, bewildered 
child and thrown as offerings against the stone 
breast of an unheeding giant. He still believed 
that poetry was a cloak of blurred embroidery 
that should be cast over the shoulders of senti- 
ments such as love, faith, charity, mercy, chivalry, 
courage and honor, and he felt both consoled 
and amused at the thought that he was using a 
rogue to guard within himself the better man 
that life had not allowed him to become. His 
love for the sentiments which he tipped with 
rhymes was partly caused, however, by the fear 
that without them he might become too utterly 
inhuman for earthly survival. 

For a year he wrestled with different manual 
labors, and stole when their perspiring monotones 
weakened and angered his desire to write lyrics 
that were half trite and half thinly wistful, but 
he finally decided to return to the midwestern 
city and brave the reactions of his parents, whose 
wrathful letters had sometimes visited his jour- 
neys. He determined to rest awhile amid the 
moderate comforts of his former home and felt 
that he could disarm the anger of his parents 
with a masterful, jesting attitude that would 

13 



BLACKGUARD 

muzzle them. And so, penniless and in dirty 
clothes, he was now walking through the heavily 
tawdry business district of a midwestern city. 



14 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER II. 

On the streets martyred by crowds, electric ' 
lights pencilled the night with their trivial 
appeals, and an ineffectual approach to daylight 
spread its desperately dotted jest over the scene. 
Since Carl almost never voiced his actual thoughts 
and emotions to people, he grasped, as usual, the 
luxury of speaking to himself. 

"Electric light is only the molten fear of men," 
he said, as he strode through the unreal haste 
of the crowds. "Men are afraid to look at the 
night and they have given it eyes as stiffly fright- 
ened as their own. Underneath the comforting 
glare of this second blindness they protect them- 
selves. In a dim light men and women could not 
easily escape from each other, for the darkness 
would tend to press them together, but in this 
violent stare of light they are divided by a self- 
assured indifference. Watch them as they stride 
along with an air of gigantic, amusing importance. 
The crowd is really a single symbol of many 
isolations joined to a huge one. It sees only 
those people who are unpleasantly conscious of 

15 



BLACKGUARD 

the electric glare, and who hurry through it \\'ith 
gestures of alert dislike, or with a slow and morbid 
desire for pain." 

This fancy made him feel conspicuously dis- 
robed, and the glances of passing people became 
to him flitting symbols of derision directed at 
his beard and dirty clothes. As he looked up at 
the tall, unlit office buildings, grey and narrowly 
vertical, they reminded him of coffins standing 
on end and patiently waiting for a ci\ilization 
to crumble, so that they might inter it and fall 
to the ground with their task completed. He 
reached the apartment-house section in which his 
parents lived — rows of three and four-story build- 
ings almost exactly like each other, and standing 
like factory boxes awaiting shipment, but never 
called for. In front of each building was a little, 
square lawn hemmed in between the sidewalk and 
the curbstone — tiny squares of dusty green lost 
in a solved and colorless problem in material 
geometry. Carl greeted them with a gesture of 
ironical brotherhood as he hurried along the walk, 
while people, observing his downcast gaze and 
saluting hands, sometimes paused to doubt his 
sanity. 

The glib suavity of a midsummer night sprin- 



i6 



BLACKGUARD 

kled its sounds down the street and the doorsteps 
and walks were hea^y with men. women and 
children, parading the uncomfortable drabness of 
their clothes and unwinding their idle talk. In 
pairs and squads, youths and girls strolled past 
Carl, laughing and playing to that exact degree 
of animal abandon tolerated by the street lights 
of a civilization, and som.etimes crossing the for- 
bidden boundary line, with little bursts of guilty 
spontaneity. Amid the openness of the street they 
were forced to become jauntily evasive of the old 
sensual madness brought by a summer evening, 
and they sought the refuges of crudely taunting 
words, snickering withdrawals, and tentative 
invitations. They were sauntering toward the 
kittenish excitements of ice-cream sundaes, mov- 
ing pictures, and kisses traded upon the shaded 
benches in a nearby public park. Thought had 
subsided in their heads to a kindly mist that 
clung to the rhythm of their emotions, though in 
the main, their minds were merely emotions that 
vainly strove to become discreet. Most people 
are incapable of actual thought, and thinking to 
them is merely emotion that calmly plots for more 
concrete rewards and visions. 

Carl looked upon the people on the sidewalks 
with the attitude of an unscrupulous stranger. 



BLACKGUARD 

and in his fancy he measured them for material 
gains and attacks, without a trace of warm emo- 
tion in his regard. To him they were merely 
alien figures busily engaged in deifying the five 
senses, and they mattered no more than shadowy 
animals blind to his aims and presence. He had 
long since frozen his emotions in self-defense and 
nothing could unloosen them save the timidly 
mystical lyrics which he wrenched from the 
baffled surfaces of his heart. During the four 
years of his life as a soldier and hobo he had 
often looked upon some of the darker and more 
rawly naked shades of sexual desire in the people 
around him, but after a first period of mechanical 
curiosity he had drawn aloof from what he con- 
sidered a blind, shrieking, fantastic parade. "This 
wearisome game of advancing and retreating flesh, 
always trying to lend importance to an essential 
monotone, can go to hell," he had muttered to 
himself. "I'll yield to my sexual desires at rare 
intervals, but I'll do it in the brief and matter- 
of-fact manner in which a man spits into a 
convenient cuspidor." Women to him were simply 
moulds of dull intrigue, irritating him with their 
pretenses of animation and with the oneness of 
their appeal. 

As he walked between the incongruities of hard 

i8 



BLACKGUARD 

street surfaces and soft noises, ever5i;hing around 
him seemed to be vainly trying to conceal a hol- 
low monotone. Middle-aged and old people sat 
around the doorsteps of the box-like apartment- 
houses, and the circumscribed and hair's-breadth 
shades of intelligence and defeat on their faces 
were transparent over one color and shape. Each 
of these people strove to convince himself that his 
relaxation on this summer evening was a glitter- 
ing honor conferred by hours of virtuous toil, 
though at times discontent suddenly raised their 
voices high in the air. It was as though they 
lifted musical instruments, gave them one help- 
less blow, and retired to apathy, scarcely aware of 
what they had done. Carl looked at them with 
a weary indifference that almost verged upon 
hatred, and hurried down the cement walk. 

As he neared the apartment-house where his 
parents lived it suddenly occurred to him that the 
entrance might be decorated by people who would 
recognize him and comment upon his appearance 
and his abrupt return. The thought of their 
amused and veiled contempt, or their assumption 
of superior compassion, made him cringe a little 
and he turned to a side-street that led to an alley 
which extended behind the block in which his 
parents lived. He passed through the dismal rear 

19 



BLACKGUARD 

yard of beaten earth and ascended the wooden 
stairway. A negro janitor, who had been working 
in this place for several years, gazed at him, at 
first with suspicion and then with a slowly pitying 
grin of recognition. 

" 'Lo, Mistah Felman. What brings you-all 
back here?" 

Carl affected an irritated aloof ne^. 

"I came back to enjoy a little shame," he said. 

"What dat last word you said?" 

"Shame, shame," repeated Carl, frowning at 
the man. 

"Guess you-all's crazy," said the negro, throw- 
ing up his hands and stumping away. 

This was one of Carl's favorite tricks. When- 
ever he desired to avoid a forced exchange of 
commonplaces, or the threat of a humiliation, he 
would speak in a cryptic fashion that aroused 
bewilderment or annoyance in the person before 
him and helped him to end the conversation. He 
found that the rear door of the apartment was 
locked and knew that his parents were visiting an 
adjacent moving-picture theater or sitting outside 
on the tiny lawn. Happily, he eyed the open win- 
dow and remembered how often in the past his 
mother had scolded his father for that enormous 
crime. Ah, the windows in their minds were well 

20 



BLACKGUARD 

nailed and shaded. He felt relieved at the knowl- 
edge that he could probably sit for an hour or two 
and rest before they returned. He climbed 
through the window with the jocose satisfaction 
of a criminal whose mock-hanging has been post- 
poned, and sat on a weak- jointed rocking-chair in 
the small dining-room. 

Not a fraction of change had come to the clut- 
tered dullness of the room. He saw the same 
rickety table of round oak, where an inferior circle 
was displaying with mild pride an embroidered 
square of white linen; the modest and orderly 
showing of cut-glass and silverware — ^tinsel of an 
old defeat — ; the plaster-of-paris bust of an 
Indian, violently colored and bearing an artificial 
scowl ; the mantlepiece that held a little squatting 
Chinaman made of colored lead and the bric-a- 
brac effigy of a doll-like courtier in washed out 
pinks and blues. On the wall opposite him a brass 
clock, moulded into crude cherubs intertwined with 
stiff blossoms, busily spoke of itself, forgetful of 
the time that it was supposed to measure, and lit- 
tle prints of uncertain landscapes hung in golden 
frames upon the wall-paper that was stamped with 
heavy purple grapes against a tan background. 
Carl shuddered as though he were in the midst of 

21 



BLACKGUARD 

a weak and disorganized nightmare, in which real- 
ity was indulging in a hackneyed burlesque at its 
own expense, and he crashed his fist upon the oak, 
table. 

"Damn it, I'll get out of this some day," he 
shouted, craving the sharp relief of sound, and 
then he grinned at the clumsy futility of his explo- 
sion. 

"If you ever do manage to escape from this con- 
spiracy of barren peace and flat lies it won't be 
with angry noise," he said to himself. "A vicious 
calmness will help you more." 

He extracted a soiled roll of pencilled, smudged 
papers from an inside pocket of his coat and 
stroked them as though they were a gathering of 
living presences. The paper became smooth skin 
to him and he questioned it with his fingers. This 
reaction was not a sensual one but sprang from his 
longing for a reality that had so far eluded his 
consciousness. His poems, peeping with eyes of 
fanciful promises above the veils that redeemed 
their faces, were more concrete to him than actual 
flesh and breath. 



22 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER III. 

He sat in the rocking-chair, tired and vaguely 
oppressed, clutching the paper in the manner of 
one who clings to a tangible encouragement in 
the midst of fantastic lies and fists. His parents 
came into the room at l^st and turned on an elec- 
tric light without at first noticing him in the semi- 
gloom^. Turning, his mother saw him in the chair. 
Her hands flew to her breast, in two tight slants, 
as she impulsively pictured the presence of a 
bearded burglar, and then she recognized him and 
insulted her emotions with a cross between a gasp 
and a squawk. 

"It's Carl! Carl! For God's sake, v/hen did 
you come in?" 

"About an hour ago, through the window that 
father always leaves open," said Carl, waiting 
with a poised and resigned smile for the inevitable 
cannonade. 

His father came in from the kitchen, where he 
had gone for a drink of water. Seeing Carl, he 
slowly challenged him with sleepily prominent 
eyes. 

23 



BLACKGUARD 

"S-o-o, s-o! You're back here again," he said. 
**I always said that you would come back. I knew 
you would get tired of bumming around. I knew 
it. Well, you loafer, what do you want from us 
now? Some more money out of my pants-pockets, 
maybe ? You're a son that I should be proud of ; 
oh, yes !" 

"Yes, and a fine condition he comes back in," 
said Mrs. Felman, who was beginning to be angry 
at herself because she was not quite as wrathful 
at Carl as she felt that she should have been. A 
louder voice might supply this missing intensity. 
"A fine condition! Look, will you, at his shoes, 
and his clothes, and the beard on his face. A nice 
specimen to be trotting back to his parents after 
four years! When he needs us he comes back, 
oh, sure, but we wasn't good enough for him 
when he ran away and stole our money. We 
should tell him to go right back where he came 
from. Right back!" 

She sat down with an air of stifled indignation 
that strained in its effort to capture an actual 
condition, and with many gasping words she tried 
to piece together the image of an inexplicable 
reptile. She was a woman whose emotions, 
garrulously bitter because of the material strait- 
jackets in which they had writhed for years, were 

24 



BLACKGUARD 

ever determined to exalt their bondage, if only 
to win relief from pain. Carl had always been 
an evil enigma to her, one that was at times half 
guessed — the accusing finger of her youth, some- 
times barely discerned through the mist of lost 
desires. To escape these momentary exposures 
she had often swung the blindness of an anger 
that was directed as much at herself as at Carl. 
The father, however, had obliterated his past self 
with a more jovial carelessness and had stolen 
the consoling fumes of many taverns, so that he 
felt little need for the shrouds of loud noise. 

"Well, at least you showed good sense in coming 
through the back way," he said, looking at his 
son with a mixture of wonder and humorous con- 
tempt. "You would have made a fine sight for 
the neighbors on the front steps ! We would never 
have heard the last of it. Noo, noo, what did you 
come back for? If it's just to play your old tricks 
again, you can walk right out of here, I tell you. 
I'll stand for no more nonsense from you. Turn 
over a new leaf and you're welcome here, but no 
more of your writing, and fancy talk, and high 
notions!" 

"Look at him," said MrsT Felman. "Sits there 
like a piece of wood! Have you nothing to say 
for yourself? Why, you haven't told us how-do- 

25 



BLACKGUARD 

you-do. Inhuman! I don't see how I ever gave 
birth to such a creature as you." 

Carl had been sitting like a stone figure, dressed 
by the playful passerby known as Life and yet 
absolutely void of life. His mute indifference had 
seduced all suggestions of flesh from him and 
even his blonde beard and hair seemed pasted 
upon an effigy. Finally the clever semblance of 
emotion returned to his body and sent an experi- 
mental tremble to see whether the flesh was 
prepared to receive another animated disguise. 
His hands twitched as though they were striving 
to overcome their paralysis in an effort to obey 
some powerful signal. As he listened to the jerky 
tirades of his parents — sterility seeking to regain 
a fertility by the use of a staccato voice — part 
of him wanted to cringe and win the convulsive 
shield of tears, while another part longed to bound 
from the insipid, brittle room and glide aimlessly 
into the night. The cringing mountebank, unfairly 
aided by physical fatigue, won this inner skirmish, 
and Carl decided to silence the anger of his parents 
by speaking to them in a way that would make 
them bewildered, since bewilderment is but a shade 
removed from frightened respect. It was the only 
pitiful little stunt that could offer him a small 
respite from the poverties of noise that were 

26 



BLACKGUARD 

assailing him — the favorite purchase of Indian 
medicine-men, Druid priests, circus barkers and 
other childlike charlatans. 

"You see, the situation has been complicated," 
he answered slowly, with the voice of a loftily- 
enervated teacher. "Complicated. I have tried 
to save a possible poet from death — always a 
noble but redundant proceeding — but it seems 
that his skin must burn. I've come back now 
to make his coffin and stud it with gold. Gold 
would seem to be a favorite metal of yours, my 
dear parents. Surely you will be satisfied now. 
And it is also possible that you may help me with 
the funeral arrangements, since this burial, unlike 
plebeian ones, may extend over several years. 
And what else do you want me to say? I have 
so many acrobatic words and they would love to 
perform for you, but I am tired to-night. True, 
I am a rascal. Can you forget that embarrassing 
challenge for one evening?" 

He broke his stonelike repose into one forward 
motion as he leaned toward his parents, turning 
upon them the prominently somnolent eyes that 
had been the sole gift from his father's face, and 
smiling like an exhausted but lightly poised angel. 
His parents were stunned, for their indignant 
assurance had suddenly recoiled from an unex- 

27 



BLACKGUARD 

pected, blank wall. They could not quite under- 
stand his words and yet they felt that he was 
mocking them. The gracious glibness of his voice 
dwarfed them with the mystery of its meanings. 
This monster was not ashamed of himself — what 
could it signify? But, after all, it was rather 
difficult to be angry at a man when you were not 
quite sure whether his words were flattering or 
sneers. Carl rose abruptly from the chair. Now 
he controlled the situation for a time. He kissed 
his mother's forehead lightly and smiled at his 
father. 

"I'm tired and hungry," he said. "A little food 
and sleep will fix me up, though, and to-morrow 
I'll look for work of some kind." 

"Crazy, crazy, just like he always was," said 
his father, turning away with a partly appeased 
and patient manner. After all, one must give the 
proper blend of pity and tolerance to one who is 
truly insane. 

The face of his mother held a virtuous impa- 
tience that made her large nose go up and down 
like a see-saw, and on the see-saw a dash of 
reluctant tenderness rode. 

"I'll get you something from the ice-box," she 
said. "You're still so young — twenty-two you'll 
be next week — and we may yet live to be proud 

28 



BLACKGUARD 

of you. If you'll only get rid of your funny 
writing notions and your stealing ideas. My God, 
what a combination!" 

Afterwards, as Carl ate, they sat at the kitchen 
table with him. Mrs. Felman was tall and strong, 
with a body on which plumpness and angles met 
in a transfigured prizefight of lines. The long 
narrowness of her face was captured by a steep 
nose slightly hooked at the top and her thin lips 
were not unlike the relics of a triumphant sneer. 
Even when they tried to be satisfied they never 
quite lost their expression of tight gloating. 
Above her high cheek-bones her eyes were bitter 
tensions of light, and a remnant of greyish-brown 
hair receded from the moderate and indented rise 
of her forehead. Her skin, once pink, was now 
roughly florid, like a petal on which many boots 
have been scraped and cleaned. Mr. Felman was 
her violent refutation. Short and hampered by 
plumpness, the large roundness of his face held 
the smirking emphasis of a greyish-red mous- 
tache, huge and clipped at the ends. His thick 
lips blossomed uncompromisingly over his fair 
double chin, and his low forehead, madly scratched 
by a plowman, stood between the abrupt curve 
of his small nose and a ruff of dark red hair 
pestered by grey. An expression of carelessly 

39 



BLACKGUARD 

earthly humor, banqueting on shallowness, fitted 
snugly upon his face and only his eyes, bulging 
with sleep, brought a metaphysical contradiction. 
He watched his son with a lazy, half -curious pity. 

"Noo, what have you been doing all this time?" 
he asked. 

"I left the army a year ago. You know, I wrote 
to you then and found out that you still lived 
here. That was very kind of me, I'm sure. Since 
then I've knocked about in different towns. Sleep 
and work, work and sleep — the twin brothers of 
man's inadequacy." 

"Ye-es, still using long words, the twin brothers 
of something or other," said Mrs. Felman, with a 
light disapproval. "Learn to talk and act like 
other people and you'll be better off. I used to 
think a little different when I was young, but 
believe me, you can't get along by just dreaming 
and talking to yourself. The trouble with you is 
that you got a lot of fancy words and no get-up." 

"Philosophical discourse number sixty-two," 
answered Carl, in the drowsily chanting voice of 
a train announcer. "Or have I lost count of them ? 
Your life hasn't made you very happy, mother, 
and perhaps that's why your arguments are lack- 
ing in the swagger of conviction. Or perhaps you 



30 



BLACKGUARD 

think that it's best to be unhappy, and in that 
case I agree with you." 

"Well, I wouldn't lower myself by trying to 
argue with you," said Mrs. Felman. "I'm per- 
fectly right in everything I say, but I simply 
don't know how to fiddle with words like you do." 

"Have you still got those poetry ideas in your 
head?" asked Mr. Felman. "Poetry is no business 
for a strong, grownup man. It's a lot of foolish- 
ness good for women and children!" 

"If you could write things that make money 
now," said Mrs. Felman. "Why, only the other 
day Mrs. Benjamin was telling me she has a 
cousin who writes love stories for the Daily 
Gazette. Nice stories that make you laugh and 
cry. And this girl gets twenty dollars apiece for 
them, too." 

"Now, now, don't be trying to encourage him 
again," said Mr. Felman. "Ain't we had enough 
trouble over this writing of his ? Let him go out 
and get a regular job, like other men!" 

Carl laughed, and his laugh was like an emotion 
interviewed by carbolic acid, and his parents eyed 
him with an offended surprise. 

"Still squabbling over the bones," he said, with 
a sarcastic apathy. "If you were more delicate 
you might realize that it is inappropriate to argue 

31 



BLACKGUARD 

at a funeral. I'm only a tongue-tied fool, but I 
seem very elusively inarticulate to you because 
you're even more tongue-tied. And now, as usual, 
you haven't understood a word of what I've said." 

"Well, you don't have to laugh at your parents," 
said Mrs. Felman, with an air of pin-pricked 
dignity. "iTou never did show any respect for us, 
in spite of all that we've done for you. Never." 

"Say, Carrie, you'll have to get a suit for him. 
Something cheap, you know, at Pearlman's," said 
the father. "He'll never get a job in those rags 
of his." 

"Money, money," said Mrs. Felman in a mechan- 
ically mournful voice. "All I do is spend money. 
It's terrible." 

The sound of an opening door invaded the flat 
tom-tom of their talk. 

"It's Al Levy," said Mrs. Felman, with fear in 
her voice. "It would be a shame now if he saw 
Carl in this condition. Hurry, hurry, Carl, to the 
bathroom before he comes in here. Your father's 
razor is on the shelf and I'll get you a clean shirt 
from the ones you left behind. Maybe they still 
fit you, as I was always careful to buy them a 
size too large." 

Carl felt like an ignoble marionette who was 
being hastily mended behind the curtain for fear 

f 
32 



BLACKGUARD 

that he might cast ridicule upon the sleekly- 
vacant play, and his emotions were evenly divided 
between amusement and contempt. Driving his 
heart and mind into a fitting blankness, he closed 
the bathroom door. Levy had a room in the 
Felman apartment and they treated him with 
an unctuous respect that almost verged upon 
an Oriental self-abasement. He was a man of 
twenty-six who worked for a wealthy uncle, 
received a large salary, and polished and scrubbed 
the limited essentials of a semi-professional man- 
about-town, with minor chorus girls and gamblers 
helping him to flatter microscopically the fatigue 
donated by his daily labors. 

"Be very friendly to Al, please," said Mrs. Fel- 
man, as they all sat around the dining-room table. 
"He's a very smart man — works in the mail-order 
business, selling cheap jewelry to country people, 
and makes a pile of money. His seven dollars a 
week come in mighty handy to us, I can tell you." 

"Dammit, all business is going good except 
whiskey," said Mr. Felman, as though he were 
inviting an elusive conspiracy to share the firm- 
ness of his tones. "These prohibition fanatics are 
ruining everything. The saloon-keepers are all 
afraid they're gonna be closed up, and they won't 
buy. I haven't sold a barrel in two days. I don't 

33 



BLACKGUARD 

know what the world's coming to with all these 
here prohibitions People are entirely too busy 
telling each other what to do, and nobody minds 
his own business any more. . . . Well, anyway, 
Carl, there's still sample bottles for you to swipe 
from my overcoat pockets." 

He said the last words with a bearish joviality, 
and had the expression of a bear who has paddled 
to within a mile of irony and is sniffing at the 
singular realm. 

"Sol, don't remind me of his old wildness," said 
Mrs. Felman, with a peevish dread. "I still 
remember the time when he staggered along the 
sidewalk in front of all the neighbors. Is there 
anything bad that he hasn't done, I want to 
know?" 

One evening, just before running away from 
home, Carl had taken some tiny bottles of whiskey 
from his father's overcoat, without curiosity, but 
longing for the feeling of sly self-assurance that 
had balanced his blood from former sneaking sips. 
He had repaired with the bottles to a neighboring 
public park and emptied them in swiftly nervous 
gulps, enjoying the vastly kinglike sneer at the 
world which had brushed aside his melancholy 
uncertainties. 

"I am a poet!" he had cried out to the mur- 

34 



BLACKGUARD 

muring patience of the trees around him, "and 
fools will some day gape along my road, and the 
open circles of their mouths will be like the rims 
of beggars' cups. My voice will rise above the 
dreamless clink of their coins and they will stop 
and look at me, as though I were a pilgrim- 
problem. An angry amazement will lend its little 
catastrophe to their faces. Yes, I will drop beauty 
to them, in clearly abundant handfuls, and they 
will sit quarreling over its value and tossing me 
an occasional penny. But I will never stop to 
join their discourses. My feet will be lighter than 
breezes and more direct. I am a poet, and the 
world is stagnation that I must ever torment !" 

He had lurched back to the Felman apartment, 
"dropping beauty" with an incisive exuberance to 
the astonished neighbors seated around the door- 
step, and commanding them to examine his gifts. 
As he sat at the dining-room table now, he remem- 
bered this episode, and similar ones, with a gust 
of half-rebellious shame. 

"This has been my only triumph so far — a 
whiskey bottle raised beneath the stars, on a 
summer evening, and reigning over an idle riot 
of words," he said to himself with an exhausted 
self-hatred. "Am I going to be contented with 
this thwarted joke? And yet " 

35 



BLACKGUARD 

Levy stepped into the room and provided a 
slightly unwelcome ending to this secret sentence. 
Short and slender, his blue serge suit clinging to 
him like an emblem of shrewd victory, he made 
an excellent period to the labors of thought. Upon 
his small, light tan face a twirled-up black mous- 
tache curved to a diminutive swagger and his 
bending nose seemed to be vainly attempting to 
caress the moustache — an unnecessary affirmation. 
His black eyes incessantly drove little bargains 
beneath the shine of his black hair. 

"H'llo, folks," he chirruped, smiling with an 
automatic ease at the Felmans. Then he noticed 
Carl and looked at him with polite surprise. 

The father and mother regarded each other 
with a despondent indecision, dreading the 
thought of introducing their drolly disreputable 
son to this shining symbol of an outside world 
and hating the undeserved appearance of inferior- 
ity which had been thrown upon them. This queer 
son had cast his shadow upon their assured and 
humbly conservative position in life — in a world 
of decently balanced regularities. Their ability at 
loquacious pretense took up the burden with a 
weary precision. 

"This is my son Carl," said Mr. Felman, with 
a prodigiously uneasy grin tickling the roundness 

36 



BLACKGUARD 

of his face. "Carl, this is Al Levy. You've heard 
us talking of him, Al. He's just come back from 
the army — surprised his old parents, you know." 

"Glad to meet you, I'm sure," said Levy, with 
an expert affability beneath which he exercised 
his disdain for Carl's patched-up appearance and 
his inkling of the actual situation. 

He complimented a chair at the table briskly; 
or, in other words, he sat down, employing a great 
condescension of limbs. He and Felman began an 
uncouth debate concerning the respective selling 
merits of whiskey and cheap jewelry, while Carl 
listened, bored and a little sick at the stomach. 
Words to these men were crudely unveiled mis- ? 
tresses, selling their favors for whatever hasty 
coin might be thrown on the table. Levy turned 
to Carl. 

"How did you like the army?" he asked, with 
a lightly superior kindliness, 

Carl nervously wondered what he should answer 
and bickered with his desire to return a curt 
indifference to this vaguely garnished mannikin. 
He decided to annoy the limited mind of the man 
in front of him and take a comforting wraith of 
revenge from this result — his customary device 
for such situations, always used to evade a lan- 
guage which he did not care to simulate. The 

37 



BLACKGUARD 

physical nearness of people made him snarl, for 
then his imagination found it more difficult to 
trifle with their outlines, and he would strive to 
drive them away with insult. 

"The army is a colorless workshop, where men 
can forget their past and avoid gambling with 
their future," he said, in an aloofly professorial 
voice. "All of the hurried and obedient move- 
ments of a day in the army, like a little drove of 
dazed foxes, prevent a man from fully realizing 
his own insignificance, and at night there is 
always a nearby city in which the sorrowful 
illusion can be captured again. Oh, yes, the army 
is an excellent prison for men to whom life holds 
a fixed horizon — men whose hearts and minds 
have reduced curiosity to an ashen foothold." 

Levy's brows bent to an unfamiliar process and 
perplexity slowly loosened his lips, but a feeling 
of irritated pride made him determined not to 
show his confusion to one whom he looked upon 
as a demented and windy subordinate. He knew 
that this "fancy fool" was attempting to parade 
a superior knowledge of English, thus creating a 
counterfeit of wisdom. 

"Oh, I don't think that the army is as bad as 
all that," he said, in a glibly hurried voice, trying 
to assume an attitude of careless disagreement. 

38 



BLACKGUARD 

"I was a sergeant-major once in the National 
Guard, down in Tennessee, and we had a pretty- 
good time of it, I'll tell you. It gave us all a 
splendid muscle and fine appetite, and it taught 
us to obey the commands of our superior officers 
without hesitating. You know, in life you've got ■ , 
to follow the orders of someone who knows / 
more than you do, or you'll never get anywhere. 
Besides, we had a lot of intelligent men in our 
outfit. Why, my company commander was one 
of the best lawyers in Nashville." 

"My planet is somewhat distant from yours. I 
was barely able to hear you," said Carl, amusedly. 
"Still, that doesn't mean that either of us is 
better or worse than the other. Your eyes are 
contented with what they see and mine are not. 
But it would not be very important to tell you 
of things that you have never missed." 

Levy became involved in his cigarette smoking 
while he futilely asked his mind for an adequate 
and unconcerned retort. Mrs. Felman sensed his 
annoyance and felt hugely angry at her son for 
"not getting in right" with this splendid young 
business-man and for speaking in a manner that 
was mysteriously and trivially vexing. 

"Ach, Carl always talks just like a hero in aT 
story," she said, in an agitated effort at humorous > 

39 



BLACKGUARD 

masquerade and hoping to smooth over the errors 
made by her freakish son. "Don't pay no attention 
to him. I can never understand him myself." 

Levy, once more completely the successful man 
to his own vision, forgot the bite of the beetle, and 
turned to the elder Felman. 

"How about a little game of rummy?" 

"Carrie, get the cards," Felman answered, in 
quick tones of bright relief. "Carl will play — he 
always was a rummy shark and he never changes 
in anything. Such a stubborn boy! I bet you 
that forty years from now he'll be just as foolish 
as he ever was." 

"Your optimism concerning the length of my 
life intrigues me," said Carl. 

Ten-cent pieces were placed on the table and 
the cards were shuffled. To the other two men 
the card game would have lacked interest without 
the money to be battled for, not because of the 
tiny gain involved, but because their desires for 
relaxation were lacking in spontaneity and needed 
the pettily deliberate strokes of a familiar whip 
to encourage their birth. Whenever, on rare occa- 
sions, they romped upon some lawn, tossing a ball 
to a child, or read the lurid clumsinesses of some 
magazine, they showed a sheepish hesitation and 
hazily felt that they were wasting time that 

40 



BLACKGUARD • 

belonged to the shrewd importance of barter and 
exchange. The presence of a coin upon a table, 
however, held a glint of the missing coquette. 
They swore elaborately and interminably at lost 
hands — "that queen would have given it to me" 
—flung down the paper oblongs with a tense ela- 
tion when they were winning, and enjoyed the 
presence of a milder but still keen market-place. 
The gambling instinct is never anything more 
than the desire to seduce an artificial uncertainty 
from a life that has grown mildewed and pre- 
arranged — the monotone must be circumvented 
with little, straining devices. It pleased Carl to 
imitate the motions of the other two men, out- 
witting them at their own small game while still 
remaining a repulsed bystander, and sneaking a 
morsel of enjoyment from their genuine dismay 
at some defeat. After several games had been 
played the father yawned mightily, creating a 
noise that sounded like a Mississippi River steam- 
boat whistle heard at a distance, poignant and 
full-throated. Perhaps with this yawn his soul 
signaled a complaint against the disgrace which 
this day had cast upon it — a nightly remonstrance 
unheard by his mind and heart. Levy, subdued 
and impressed by Carl's card-playing abilities, 
pelted him with commonplaces which he tried to 

41 



BLACKGUARD 

make as genial as possible, and Carl, too sleepy 
to be belligerent or aloof, gave him softly vague 
responses. Mrs. Felman, for the first time, looked 
out with heavy peace from behind the crinkling 
newspaper where she had been placidly nibbling 
at the perfumed logics of a latest divorce scandal. 
Her son had finally redeemed the evening by 
exhibiting a small but ordinary proficiency which 
drew him a little nearer to the dully efficient level 
of mankind, and her reflections upon his material 
future became a shade less hopeless. 



42 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER IV. 

At an early hour on the following morning she 
hurried Carl to the business section of the city 
so that the neighboring women, who slept late 
after getting breakfast for their men, would not 
see him from their windows, and at a department 
store she purchased a cheap suit of clothes for 
him. He dressed behind a small screen in the 
store, feeling like a small, eccentric lamb who was 
being glossed for the market. She left him at an 
elevated railroad station, extracting a dollar from 
her pocketbook with an air of intensely solemn 
and reflective importance. 

"Don't waste it now; I know your tricks," she 
said. "Be sure and get the afternoon paper and 
look through the want ads. Take anything at the 
start — don't be high-toned." 

Carl gave her the necessary monosyllables of 
assent and walked down the street, his mind busy 
with many insinuations. 

"Perhaps I'd better stop stealing for a while," 
he said to himself. "If I keep it up without an 
intermission it's going to land me in jail again 

43 



BLACKGUARD 

and I'm not anxious for that circumscribed trav- 
esty to happen. That term of three months in 
Texas gave me a great deal of time in which to 
write, but the little animals in that place intruded 
with a bite that was both wistful and inadequate. 
It's a little difficult to write about beauty and 
scratch your skin simultaneously — the proud stare 
of the former does not like to sit in the prison 
of a small irritation. It is an intricately adjusted 
equilibrium and the lunge of a finger nail can 
desecrate this subtly balanced aloofness. There 
is little difference between the bars of mind and 
actual iron rods, but when you are still partly 
inarticulate, physical motion can become a neces- 
sary recompense. No, for the time being I had 
better strain my hands in prayer against the tiny 
implements with which men felicitate their stupid- 
ity. Back and forth — but what else can I do?" 
It was his habit to think only in metaphors and 
V ' similes, and in this way he evaded the realities 
that would otherwise have crushed him. He 
walked down the street, practicing an emotion of 
stolid submission, and this surface humility 
played pranks with his blonde-topped head and 
made his thin lips loosely unrelated to the rest 
of his face. As he strode through the business 
district of the city, with its sun-steeped frenzies 

44 



BLACKGUARD 

of men and vehicles, the scene pressed upon him 
and yet was remote at the same time. It was as 
though he were studying a feverishly capering 
unreality and vainly striving to persuade himself 
that he formed a significant part of it. 

The unrelenting roar of automobiles, wagons 
and cars became the laughable and inarticulate 
attempt of a dream to convince him that it held 
a power over his mind and body. Men and women 
darted past him with a rapidity that made them 
appear to be the mere figments of a magic trick. 
Here he caught the thick tension of lips, and 
there the abstracted flash of eyes, but they were 
gone before he could believe that they had inter- 
fered with his vision. He paused beside a dark 
green news-stand squeezed under the iron slant 
of an elevated-railroad stairway and strove to pin 
the scene to his mind and fix his relation to the 
people who were jesting with his eyes. Young and 
old, dressed in complications of timidly colored 
cloth, each seemed to be running an exquisitely 
senseless race in the effort to gain a nonsensical 
foot on the other person. The masked rush of 
their bodies deprived them of a divided sexual 
appearance and lure — men and women, touching 
elbows without emotion, were swept into one 
lustreless sex which darted in pursuit of a treach- 

4S 



BLACKGUARD 

erously invisible reward. The entire structure 
around them — buildings, signs, and iron slabs — 
stood like a house of cards carefully supported by 
an essence that rose from the rushing people, and 
Carl felt that if these men and women were to 
become silent and motionless, in unison, the house 
of cards would instantly lose its meaning and 
tumble down. 

"What are they gliding and stumbling toward ?" 
he asked himself — the old, poignantly futile first 
question of youth. "Each man, with an ingenious 
treason, is trying to forget his inability at self- 
expression and soiling the void with an increasing 
burden that will prevent him from complaining too 
much. At some time in their lives all of these 
people felt, dimly or strongly, for a moment or 
for years, the ludicrous ache of a desire to stand 
out clearly against their scene, but the loaded 
momentum of past lives — the choked influence of 
past futilities — pushed them along with a force 
which they could not withstand. It is really a 
stream of adroitly dead men and women that is 
fleeing down this street — surreptitiously dead 
people living in the bodies of a present reality and 
perpetuating the defeated essence of their past 
lives." 

As he stood and watched the crowd he found it 

46 



BLACKGUARD 

necessary to ask himself the words: "What gave 
its slyly amused signal for this plaintive race 
through the centuries?" 

He also found it necessary to answer: "A 
languid idiot, much in need of consolation, 
refuses to abandon his dream." 

Here and there, apart from the main lunge of 
the crowd, were men and women, standing still, 
as though motion had betrayed them, or loitering 
in a carelessly placid fashion. Vacancy and inde- 
cision tampered with most of their faces. 

"How many minor poets have stood upon these 
street corners, making arrangements for a gradual 
and unnoticed death ?" he asked himself, with the 
sentimental self-importance of youth. 

But the stage hands clamored that he was neg- 
lecting the play — a habit falsely known as laziness 
— and that, with appropriate cunning, they had 
erected this city scene so that he and hordes of 
others should find it difficult to forget their tamely 
borrowed lines. With an uncomplaining wrench 
he returned to his surface role of a youth sent 
out in weakly gruesome clothes to look for some 
task that would begin to answer the flatly strident 
requests of an average life. The humble stupor 
fell back upon his shoulders and he walked to a 
bench in a public square, seated himself, and read 

47 



BLACKGUARD 

the "want-ad" section of a newspaper. He spied, 
with a prostrate frown, the barren jest of: 
"Wanted — Young man for clerical work ; must be 
neat, industrious, wide-awake, sober, well edu- 
cated, reliable, good at details, ambitious, honest, 
painstaking; salary twelve dollars a week." He 
muttered certain useless words to himself. "The 
illusion of a reluctant penny for fresh vigor. If 
the applicant is morbidly patient and reasonably 
deft at following orders he may after many years 
attain the virtue of writing the same trivially 
unfair appeal to other men. And even that 
exquisite victory is uncertain." 

He saw that as usual his only choice rested 
between an office-boy's task, dignified by the title 
of junior clerk to make it more enticing, and 
unskilled manual labor. 

"Now, how will you become tired — mentally or 
physically?" he asked himself with great for- 
mality. 

Abruptly, and in that conscious and secret plot 
which men insist upon calling subconscious, he 
peered at the picture of a black man and a white 
man throwing a wilted rose back and forth to 
each other and catching it without a trace of 
emotion. The little, ridiculous rose lost a petal 
after each catch, but in spite of its smallness 

48 



BLACKGUARD 

the number of petals seemed to be inexhaustible. 
At a distance the black and white man exactly 
resembled each other, but on approaching closer 
it could be seen that the black man held the face 
of an incredibly stolid ruffian, while the white 
man's face was engraved with the patience of a 
cowed child. Not being acquainted with psycho- 
analysis — that blind exaggeration of sexual 
routines — Carl did not believe, after he returned 
to the touch of the park bench, that this picture 
had slyly veiled the direction of his physical 
desires. He knew that a fantastic whim had 
slipped from his mind and induced him to probe, 
his choice between two equally drab kinds of 
labor, striving to make this choice endurable for 
a moment. 

He selected three advertisements, all of them 
asking for manual laborers, walked from the park, 
and boarded a street car. The first place that he 
visited was a box factory — a slate-colored crate 
of a building, bearing that flatly unexpectant tone 
that expresses the year-long mating of smoke and 
dirt. As he ascended the gloomy stairway an 
endless drone and clatter battled with his ears. 
It seemed a senseless blasphemy directed at noth- 
ing in particular — the complaint of a dull-witted, 
harnessed giant who was being driven on without 

49 



BLACKGUARD 

knowing why. Carl entered a huge room dishev- 
eled with sawdust and shavings and cluttered with 
black belts and wheels. Men with swarthy, 
motionless faces and feverish arms leaned over the 
wheels and saws. As he stood near the doorway, 
feeling dwarfed and uncertain, a man came toward 
him. Sturdy and short, the man looked like a 
magnified and absent-minded gnome, too busy to 
realize that civilization had played an obscene 
trick on him by stealing his fairy disguise and 
substituting the colorless inanities of overalls and 
a black shirt. The large and heavily twisted fea- 
tures on his face were partially hidden by a brown 
stubble of beard, and like all men who work for- 
ever in factories, he had an ageless air in which 
youth, middle age and old age were pounded into 
one dull evasion. 

"What d'ya want?" he asked, the words jumbled 
to a bark. 

"I'm looking for work. Saw your ad in the 
paper." 

He examined the region between Carl's toes and 
cap, measuring the unimportance of flesh. 

"We want good strong men to load boxes and 
carry lumber," he said. "You don't look like a 
man for the job, bo. You're dressed like a travelin' 



50 



BLACKGUARD 

salesman an' we want men who ain't afraid to 
get dirt on their clothes. Get me?" 

"Don't mind this suit of mine," said Carl. "I 
have a much dirtier one at home and I'll be only 
too glad to wear it here. You see, I always feel 
more peaceful in dirty clothes, but someone played 
a joke on me and made me wear this suit." 

"Well, you ought to come ready for work, if 
you're lookin' for it" — the man peered again at 
Carl. 

"Nope. Nope. You ain't got the build for 
heavy work. We're after big, husky men. Sorry, 
Jack, but there's nothin' doin'." 

"Say, be reasonable," said Carl. "Fve done hard 
work off and on for the last four years and I'm 
much stronger than I look. Come on, give me a 
chance." 

The man shook his head as his eyes received 
Carl's slender arms and narrow shoulders, and he 
did not know that this weak aspect concealed an 
inhuman amount of endurance. After another 
useless expostulation Carl walked out, grinning 
forlornly as he strode down the street. Cheated 
out of the phantom opiate of a beautiful box- 
piling job because of a deceptive physical appear- 
ance and a twenty-dollar suit, reduced to nineteen 
through the expert pleading of his mother! He 

51 



BLACKGUARD 

looked down with delicate aversion at the grey, 
neatly-pressed cloth which concealed his material 
humility with lines of dreamless confidence, and 
felt a sudden impulse to tear it off and go nakedly 
cavorting down the street, taking the cries of 
onlookers as a suitable reward, but that sleek 
caution born from rough faces and rougher 
hands chided him back to sanity. After calling at 
another factory and receiving the same refusal, 
he decided to wait until the morrow, when he 
could don his old, dirty clothes and avert sus- 
picion. 

The city turmoil was slackening, like a huge, 
human top beginning to spin weakly. The warm 
hardness of a summer evening between city 
streets tried a little laughter in an unpracticed 
voice, and revolving streams of men and women 
hid the pavements — a satiated army returning 
from an unsettled conflict. The scene was a mixed 
metaphor trying to straighten itself out. Feeling 
forlornly alert and useless in the midst of all this 
important exhaustion, Carl made his way home. 

A group of neighbors sat with a clean and 
well-brushed peace around the doorstep. In the 
heat of the summer evening they seemed mere 
figures of slightly animated flesh, with their 
thoughts and emotions reduced to placidly con- 

53 



BLACKGUARD 

tented wraiths. Three middle-aged Jewish women 
sat in rocking chairs and knitted with an effortless 
incision, unaware of the spiritual prominence that 
is usually discovered in their race. Their bulky- 
bodies censured the lightness of evening air and 
their deeply-marked brown faces were those of 
self-assured, thoughtless queens issuing orders to 
a tiny domain, with palmetto fans for scepters and 
rhinestone combs for crowns. Incessantly they 
chatted about the personal details of their daily 
lives, splitting these details into even smaller 
atoms and fondling the minute particles with a 
lazy relish. Children romped at their feet or 
brought some tiny request to their laps — children 
that seemed to be dreams of cherubic hilarity, 
released from the busy sleep of the middle-aged 
women and reproving it. Behind them, sitting 
on the stone steps, a middle-aged Jewish man 
glued his depressed weariness to a newspaper. 
The orderly sleekness of his clothes had met with 
the familiarity of a summer day and the rim of 
his once stiff collar, drenched with perspiration, 
made a pathetic curve around his fat, brown neck. 
His eyes were like fiat discs of metal placed on 
each side of an enormous, confident nose. Noses 
express the spirit of people far better than lips 
and eyes, for they cannot be moved and changed 

53 



BLACKGUARD 

to suit the fears and desires of a person, but 
stand with an outline of uncompromising reveal- 
ment. Their still silence is often the only sincerity 
upon a human face, and the nose of this man 
showed a strident green that was contradicted a 
bit by the drooping little indentations just above 
the nostrils, indicating that the man had his 
moments of self-doubt, but refused to yield to 
them. 

It seemed incredible to Carl that these people 
were housing hearts and minds, for he could see 
them only as so many sterile lumps of flesh that 
were using every desperate trick to minimize the 
crawling shadow of their unimportant graves. 
Two of the women knew him and greeted him 
with an insincere and inquisitive cordiality. 

"Wh-y-y, Mister Felman, when did you get 
back?" said Mrs. Rosenthal, the fattest of the 
group. 

"I returned yesterday," answered Carl, injecting 
a great solemnity into his voice. 

"Yesterday? Well, well. And did you have a 
nice time in the army? I've been told that it's 
really marvelous for a man — makes him so strong 
and healthy. And then all the traveling about, 
you know, must be so interesting." 

"Oh, ye-e-es, it's a wonderful place," said Carl, 

54 



BLACKGUARD 

gravely mimicking her drawling voice. "Bands, 
and uniforms, and parades. It's really quite fasci- 
nating." 

"Well, I'm so glad you liked it," said Mrs. Ben- 
jamin, another woman in the group, who felt that 
it was time to advance a well-placed sentence. "I 
want you to meet my husband. Mo, this is Mister 
Felman, who's just come back from the army." 

"Glad t' meet yuh," said the man on the door- 
step, blurring the words in a swiftly mechanical 
fashion, but looking very closely at Carl. 

Carl returned the salutation in the same fashion, 
taking a shade of amusement from his parrot- 
like impulse. These hollow creatures — what else 
could one do save to imitate their mannerisms and 
ideas, for self-protection, and rob and defraud 
them at every opportunity, thus giving them a 
mild apology for existence? After another round 
of wary commonplaces he managed to break away. 
His mother met him at the door and he said 
"Hello" and was about to pass her when her sharp 
voice halted him. 

"You haven't got an ounce of affection in you! 
A nice way to greet your mother! Hello, and he 
walks right by like I was some boy he met on the 
street." 

For a moment Carl stood without answering. 

55 



BLACKGUARD 

This woman who had given birth to him — an 
incomprehensible chuckle of an incident — was 
almost non-existent to his emotions — a mere 
shadow that held an incongruously raucous voice 
and guarded one of the gates of his surface prison. 
As he stood in the hallway, doubting the reality 
of her shrill voice, he asked himself: "Am I an 
inhuman monster, unfit to touch this woman's 
dress, or am I a poet standing with candid erect- 
ness in an alien situation ?" 

Suddenly the question became unimportant to 
him and he felt that he had merely offered his 
inevitable self the choice between an imaginary 
halo and an equally fantastic strait- jacket. If his 
mother actually longed for an affection which he 
did not hold, it would be inexpensive to toss her 
the counterfeit coins of gestures and words. When 
she finished her staccato diatribe, he bowed deeply 
to her, with the palm of one hand lightly interro- 
gating the buttons of his coat, raised her hand 
to his lips, and kissed it at great length. 

"Na-a, go away with your silliness," she said. 
"I know you don't mean it." 

Her narrow face loosened for a moment and a 
shimmer of compensation found her eyes. This 
queer son of hers might be faintly realizing, after 
all, the unselfish intensity of her efforts to give 

56 



BLACKGUARD 

him a position of honor and respectability in the 
world. Perhaps he was only wild and young, and 
would finally press his shoulders against the 
admired harness of material success. It could not 
be possible that one who had struggled from her 
flesh would remain a remote idiot and ignore the 
warm shrewdness within her that life had some- 
how swindled. 

The elder Felman was reading his paper in the 
dining-room. He greeted Carl with a somnolent 
imitation of interest, but the heat, aided by a 
day spent in pungent saloons, had cheated him 
of most of his mental consciousness. He had 
Decome so thoroughly accustomed to drink that 
an artificial buoyancy scarcely ever invaded the 
dull ending of his days. 

"We-e-ell, where did you go to-day?" he asked, 
feeling some slight craving for sound and trying 
to rouse his material anticipations. 

He abandoned his seductive newspaper, with its 
melodrama that was pleasant because it murdered 
at a distance, and questioned Carl with his sleepy 
eyes. 

"Went to a couple of factories, but the foremen 
were disgusted with the cut of my clothes," said 
Carl. "They felt that the wearing of a new and 
unwrinkled suit revealed an intelligence which 

57 



BLACKGUARD 

should not be possessed by an applicant for manual 
labor. I tried to convince them that the semblance 
was false in my case, but they refused to be 
persuaded." 

"Always trying to joke. That won't get you 
anything. The main thing is — did you get work, 
or didn't you?" 

"No, I did not. I applied for manual labor, but 
I forgot to put on overalls." 

Mrs. Felman stood in the doorway and lifted a 
skillet in simple wrath. 

"Factories he goes to !" she cried, in a voice that 
was not unlike the previous rattling of the skillet. 
"I bought him a new suit and shoes this morning 
so he could look for common, dirty work! It's 
terrible. Here we sent him to high-school for 
four years and his only ambition is to work as a 
common laborer." 

The father smiled dubiously at her explosion. 

"Now, Carrie, don't let all the neighbors know 
your business," he said. "Your holler is enough 
to drive anyone crazy. There's no harm in honest 
work, Carrie, and besides he'll soon get tired of 
sweating in factories and look for something 
decent. Don't worry." 

"I guess anything will be better than that silly 
scribbling that's ruined his life so far," said Mrs. 

58 



BLACKGUARD 

Felman, her anger dwindling to a guttural sulki- 
ness. Carl, who had been sitting with a suffering 
grin on his face, gave them soothing words and 
once more held them at arm's length. 



59 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER V. 

In the dirty clothes that he had worn upon his 
arrival, qualified by a clean shirt, he went forth 
on the next morning and found work as a line- 
man's helper for a telephone company. He was 
required to climb up the wooden poles ; hand tools 
to the lineman ; unwind huge spools of wire ; make 
simple repairs under the lineman's guidance. 
As he labored from pole to pole, down a suburban 
street, taking the impersonal whip of the sun and 
winning the pricks of insects on his sweat-dappled 
face, he felt dully grateful toward the physical 
orders that were crudely obliterating the con- 
fused demands of his heart and mind. As he 
toiled on, this dull feeling gradually rose to a self- 
lacerating joy. He revelled in the cheap vexa- 
tions brought by his tasks — the unpleasant scrap- 
ing of shins against iron rungs and the sting of 
dust in his eyes — and his self-hatred stood apart, 
delightedly watching the slavish antics of the 
physical mannikin. 

Then, when this emotion paused to catch its 
breath it was replaced by a calmer one, and his 

60 



BLACKGUARD 

insignificance receded a bit, beneath the substan- 
tial lure of arms and legs that were moving 
toward a fixed purpose. "I am doing something 
definite now and that is at least a shade better 
than the indefinite uselessness of my thoughts," 
he mumbled to himself as he lurched from pole 
to pole. The slowly mounting ache of his muscles 
became a bitter hint of approaching peace and 
he looked forward to the moment when he would 
quit his labors and enjoy the returning inde- 
pendence of his body, as though it were a god's 
condescension. He worked quickly and breath- 
lessly, as one who hurries to a distant lover's 
arms. Filled with a doggedly naive hatred for 
his own deficiencies, he welcomed this chance 
to insult them with disagreeable and infinitely 
humble postures, and he gladly punished him- 
self underneath the violence of the sun. It was, 
indeed, a spiritual sadism deigning to make use 
of the flesh. 

"Hey, Jack, take it a little easier," the lineman 
called down to him once. "Don't kill yourself at 
this job. It's too damned hot to work hard." 

Carl gave him a beaten grin and moved his 
arms even faster while the lineman bewilderedly 
meditated upon this imbecility. The lineman was 
a burly young Swede with a broadly upturned 

6i 



BLACKGUARD 

nose and thickly wide lips. His face suggested 
poorly carved wood. The blankness of his mind 
held few skirmishes with thought on this rasping 
afternoon and his mental images were confined 
to tools, stray glasses of beer, yielding pillows, 
and feminine contours — the flitting promises that 
held him to his day of toil. He possessed no 
human significance to Carl — he was a drably acci- 
dental automaton who shouted down the blessed 
orders that gave Carl little time for definite 
thoughts and emotions: an unconscious helper in 
the flogging of mind and soul. 

As they walked down the street after the day's 
work Carl looked closely at him for the first time. 
Sweat and dirt were violating the youthful out- 
lines of his face, and his small blue eyes were 
contracted and deeply sunk as though still direct- 
ing the movements of his arms. The blunt 
strength of his body sagged beneath the color- 
lessness of clothes and his head was wearily bent 
forward — the grey frenzies of a civilization had 
exacted their daily tribute and it is possible that 
he was not aware of the glory and impressiveness 
which certain poets find in his cringing role. For 
a time Carl looked at him with an exhausted 
friendliness and felt tied to him by the intimate 

62 



BLACKGUARD 

bonds of confessing sweat and conquered toil, and 
this illusion did not vanish until he spoke. 

"Me for beer and somethin' to eat," he said, 
with heavy anticipation. "A day shust like this '11 
take the guts outa any man. Come along, Jack, 
I'll stand treat for the suds. . . . An' say, lemme 
give ya a tip — don't overwork yourself out on 
this job. It don't pay. You won't get a cent 
more at the end of the week. Do whatcha gotta 
do but take it kinda easy. Kinda easy. The boss 
is too busy most of the time to notice who's doin' 
the most work an' unless you loaf on the job you 
can get by without killin' yourself." 

The complacent roughness of his voice, divided 
by the shallow wisdoms of the underdog, destroyed 
the feeling of tired communion which Carl had 
been sheltering, and his exhaustion began to creep 
apart from the man, like a tottering aristocrat. 
He was once more a proudly baffled creator, shuf- 
fling along after a day of useless movements, and 
his hatred for human beings awoke from its short 
sleep and brandished a sneer on his loose and dirt- 
streaked face. 

He walked into a corner saloon with Petersen 
and gulped down a glass of beer. Its cool interior 
kiss aroused a bit of vigor within him and he 
looked around at the men who were amiably fight- 

63 



BLACKGUARD 

ing to place their elbows on the imitation mahog- 
any bar. Their faces were relaxed and soiled, 
heavily betraying the aftermath of a day of toil, 
and an expression of brief elation teased their 
faces as they swallowed the beer and whiskey and 
licked their lips. After each drink they stood with 
blustering indecision, like generals striving to for- 
get a menial dream and regain their command of 
an army, or quietly tried to erase the blunders and 
supplications of a day, seeking nothing save the 
solace of lazy conversation and weakly clownish 
arguments. The strained, corrupt clamor of 
voices debating over women, prize-fighters, and 
money swayed back and forth and was timidly 
disputed by the whir of electric-fans and the clink 
of glasses. A wave of sleepy carelessness stormed 
Carl as he watched these men. Inevitably thrown 
in with them, as a sacrifice to a dubious reality, 
he felt inclined to copy their actions and inanely 
insult his actual self, since at this moment all 
words and gestures seemed equally futile to him. 
"What essential difference is there between a 
poet, boasting of his reputation, and a workman 
bragging about the women who have allowed him 
to molest their bodies ?" he asked himself, forcing 
the question out of the drained limpness of his 
mind. "The poet has taught better manners to 

64 



BLACKGUARD 

his vanity, with many an inquisitive artifice, 
while the other man is more natural and clumsy." 

Petersen's voice interrupted the soliloquy. 

"Come on, have another." 

"Make it whiskey this time," said Carl to the 
bartender. "I'll pay for this one, Petersen." 

"Keep your money, keep it," answered Petersen, 
warmed by his beers to an insistent generosity. 
"I got plenty of it. But say, I'll be a little shorter 
in kale tuhnight when Katie gets through with 
me. There's no way of spendin' money that that 
dame don't know, but I guess all women are like 
that. They make you fly some to get 'em. Gonna 
meet her at eight tonight." 

"Who's Katie?" asked Carl, drowsily amused 
after his whiskey. 

"She's a little brunette I'm goin' with. I'm 
blonde myself so I like 'em dark an' well-built. 
Fine-lookin' girl she is. Some curve! She ain't a 
fast dame by no means but I give her money so's 
she can look decent. You know the wages they 
pay at them damn department-stores! I don't 
wanna be ashamed of her when I take her out so 
I get her the best of every thin' — silk stockings, 
nice hat, swell shoes." 

"Don't she feel kinda small about a man paying 

65 



BLACKGUARD 

for her clothes?" asked Carl, slipping into Peter- 
sen's language. 

"Well, she said no at first but I told her that 
she didn't have to give me nothin' except what 
she wanted to," said Petersen. "I'm a straight 
guy with women, I am." 

"Do you love her?" asked Carl, wondering how 
Petersen would take the question. 

He looked at Carl with a heavy disapproval. 

"Say, cut out the kiddin'," he answered. "D'ya 
lo-o-ove her" — he mimicked the words with aston- 
ished derision — "none of that soft stuff for me. 
She's a good-lookin', wise girl, and if I don't see 
anyone I like better I'll prob'ly marry her, but 
she ain't got no ropes tied to me. You bet not! 
There's plenty of fish in the pond. Jack." 

"Yes, if you've got the right kind of bait," 
answered Carl, deliberately falling into the other 
man's verbal stride, "but be sure that someone else 
isn't fishing for you at the same time. Hooked 
from above, while not watching, you know." 

"You're a regular kidder, ain't ya," said Peter- 
sen, who dimly felt that Carl was masking the sly 
wisdom of sexual pursuits and respected him for 
it. "But say, Katie's got a nice friend — Lucy's 
her name. She's a little thin, not much curve to 

66 



BLACKGUARD 

her, but some men like 'em that way. An' she's 
kinda quiet too, don't talk much, but I don't care 
for them when they're always laughin' and cuttin' 
up. Then they're usually tryin' to get on your 
good side an' work you for somethin.' Would ya 
like to meet this dame? I don't know just how 
far she'll go but she might come across if you 
work her right." 

"Sure, lead me to her," said Carl, inaudibly 
laughing to himself. 

"Alright, I'll make it for eight tuhmorrow night. 
The four of us'll go somewhere . . Well, one more 
an' we'll beat it. Jack." 

Glancing swiftly ahead, Carl saw that this 
engagement would demand a certain sum of 
money and he wondered how he could obtain it 
since he would not be paid for his present work 
until the end of the week. While he stood, grasp- 
ing this little perplexity, he noticed that a man 
at his left had placed a ten-dollar bill on the bar, 
in payment for a drink, and that the man was 
immersed in a violent argument with a friend, 
with his back turned to the bar. The bartender 
was at the other end of the counter, and after a 
glance at Petersen, who stood dully peering into 
his empty glass, Carl whisked the bill into one of 

67 



BLACKGUARD 

his coat pockets. Then he quickly prodded Peter- 
sen's shoulder. 

"Come on, let's go," he said, and the two walked 
out of the saloon, Carl taking care to stroll in a 
reluctant fashion and steeling himself for the 
angry shout that might come. 

As Carl walked down the street he felt a twinge 
of regret at having stolen the money of a stum- 
bling, minor puppet. He told himself that this 
petty gesture had been forced upon him by an 
innately vicious contortion known as life, but his 
emotions cringed as they arranged an appropriate 
explanation. 

"This man whom I have robbed will curse the 
treacherous unfairness of life and his eyes, dilated 
with bitterness, will see more clearly his relation 
to the things around him. In this way I have 
really befriended him. The railroad-detective, 
who once struck me on the head with the butt of 
a pistol, when I was offering no resistance, was 
trying to obtain revenge — revenge upon the people 
who had made him their snarling slave — and he 
blindly reached out for the object nearest to him, 
which happened to be my head. But there was no 
desire for vengeance in my own gesture. I steal 
from men in order to prevent life from stealing 

68 



BLACKGUARD 

an occasional refuge for my thoughts and emo- 
tions. A purely practical device." 

He left Petersen at the next street-corner and 
boarded a crowded street-car, reflecting on his 
engagement to meet the "quiet an' thin Lucy" as 
he stood wearily clinging to the leather strap. 
Petersen's attitude toward women was a familiar 
joke. Dressed in its little array of fixed and con- 
fident variations it had pursued Carl in the past 
without repulsing or flattering him. To him it 
was an elaborately pitiful delusion of dominance 
made by hosts of men, who felt the craving to 
inject a dramatic variety and assurance into the 
frightened monotones of their lives. In an aching 
effort to dignify their barren days these men 
adopted the roles of hunters and masters among 
women. They entered, with infinite coarseness 
and precision, a glamorous realm of lies, jealous- 
ies, cruelties, and haloes, and in this wildly fan- 
tastic land they managed to forget the flatly sub- 
missive attitudes of another world. Carl was tell- 
ing himself that he had been waiting for a woman 
who could bring him something more than the 
crudely veiled undulation of flesh but he fashioned 
the starving little romance with great deliberate- 
ness. 

69 



BLACKGUARD 

"Women have excited my flesh and it has often 
yielded to them, but that is simply a necessary 
triviality," he said to himself. "I, too, must seek 
to evade the monotonies and restrictions of my 
life, lest I become mad, but at least I am quite 
conscious of the joke. The cheap little drug-store 
does not witness any hoodwinked swaggers on my 
part! So on to quiet Lucy, with her stiff stupidi- 
ties and elastic curves." 

Once more he had to pass the garrulous sentries 
at the gate — the neighbors around the doorstep. 
They eyed the dirt upon his clothes and face with 
an amazed contempt — Carrie Felman's son a com- 
mon laborer ! — and lost in their scrutiny they gave 
him monosyllabic greetings. 

"Well, judging from the dirt all over you you've 
found a job," said his mother in tones of blunt 
resignation. 

"Yes, I'm working as a lineman's helper for the 
telephone company," he answered in an expres- 
sionless voice. 

After he had washed his parents pelted him 
with amiable questions — the details of his work, 
wages, and companions — a dash of solicitude 
swinging with their desire to entertain the dull 
aftermath of a hot summer day. He answered 

70 



BLACKGUARD 

their questions patiently and they were glad that 
their son seemed ready to plunge his "wildness" 
into the soothing currents of an average life. 
Their affection for him was only able to dominate 
their hearts when he failed to challenge the peace- 
ful assumptions and bargains of their lives, for 
otherwise it verged into hatred because it was con- 
fronted by a stabbing mystery which it could not 
understand. 

After the evening meal he sat in an easy chair 
upholstered with violent green plush and usually 
occupied at such times by his father, but donated 
to him in honor of his first evening of submission. 
He sprawled in the chair, trifling with the head- 
lines of a newspaper and throwing them aside. A 
warm and not unpleasant stupor began to descend 
upon his thoughts and emotions and they fluttered 
spasmodically, like circles of drugged butterflies. 
He closed his eyes. His legs and arms held a heav- 
iness which he enjoyed because he was not forced 
to raise it. 

"Will this be my end — a swinging of arms and 
legs during the daytime and then different shades 
of sleep or sensual bravado at night?" he asked 
himself drowsily — a well-remembered sentence 
that needed little consciousness. 

71 



BLACKGUARD 

Suddenlj'-, an emotional revolt within him tore 
against his physical lethargy, like lightnings from 
some unguessed depth of his soul, and he was 
astonished to find himself sitting upright in the 
chair. He saluted the victory joyously. 

"By God, I won't give in as easily as this," he 
whispered to the purple grapes on the tan wall- 
paper, addressing them because their ugliness was 
at least helplessly inert. "You're concrete sym- 
bols, if nothing else, and you don't stumble amidst 
unconquered clouds. I'll go to the park and try to 
write a poem." 

Agreeably amazed at the returning vestige of 
strength in his legs he walked to the public-park 
and sat down upon a bench. Ignoring the people 
who were strolling or romping around him he bent 
over his paper-pad and tugged at the smooth inso- 
lence of rhyme and meter, but the fight was an 
uneven one since his mind and emotions were still 
brittle and dazed from their day of hurried sub- 
jection. After crumbling sheets of paper for two 
hours he wrote : 

TO A SAND-PIPER 
One blast — a mildly frightened little host 
Of liquid sprites, each holding one high 
note, 

72 



BLACKGUARD 

Aroused from some repentance in the 

throat 
Of this grey-yellow bird who skims the 

coast — 
And silence. Far off I can somehow feel 
The drooping-winged sprites back to 

covert steal. 
The poem did not satisfy him, and in a measure 

he felt like a sleepwalker who was imitating ges- 
tures that had lost their meaning to him, but he 
dared not substitute his actual thoughts and emo- 
tions in place of the tenuous or stilted fancies 
which he believed were all that poetry was allowed 
to achieve. All that he wanted to say, and all 
that he did say in conversation with himself, mut- 
tered unhappily within him as he sat on the 
bench and strained to capture the pretty sugges- 
tions of a mystical rapture, but he was slave to 
the belief that poetry was a thinly aristocratic 
experience in which thoughts and emotions, 
serene, noble, and ludicrously artificial, disdained 
the lunges of thought and the turmoils of an ac- 
tual world — pale, washed-out princes contending 
among themselves for trinket-devices known as 
rhymes and meters. 

He rose from the bench, impoverished by the 
effort that he had made to counteract a day of 
toil, and trudged homeward. 

73 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER VI. 

After stumbling through another day of heav- 
ing muscles and bruised shins, with his self -hatred 
gloating over the slavery of his body, he met 
Petersen and the two girls at a down-town street- 
corner, grinning at the thought of what this 
experience might hold, for he liked the idea of 
pretending to be a sensual beggar while a sneer 
within him played the part of a bystander. 

Petersen's sweetheart, Katie Anderson, was a 
short, plump girl who tried, with the incessant 
swiftness of her tongue, to apologize for the 
excessive slowness of her thoughts. The coarse 
roundness of her face was determinedly obscured 
by rouge and powder, and her large brown eyes 
were continually shifting, as though they feared 
that stillness might betray some secret which they 
held. Her face knew a species of sly and mild 
cunning not unlike that of a rabbit frequently 
beaten by life but clinging to its mask of courage 
while hopping through the forest of sensual 
experience. Her friend, Lucy Melkin, was more 
subdued and helplessly candid. Her small slender 

74 



BLACKGUARD 

body stooped a little as though some unseen hand 
were pressing too familiarly upon one of her 
shoulders — a hand of exhausted fear — and the 
pale oval of her face had the twist of a loosely 
pleading infant beneath its idiotic red and white. 
Her blue eyes seemed to be endlessly waiting for 
something to strike them and wondering why the 
blow failed to arrive on time. 

Petersen suggested that they should visit an 
adjacent vaudeville theater and when Carl and the 
others agreed they walked through the crowded 
streets. 

"Baby, but I've had some day," said Katie. 
"Them shoppers sure get on your nerves, I'm tell- 
ing you. But you're not gonna let me work all 
the time, are you, Charlie dear?" 

"There's no harm in workin'," said Petersen, 
not wanting to be quite placed in the position of 
disdaining an essential fact within his life. "No 
harm. I gotta take a lot of sass myself from the 
foreman but it's all in the day's game. You don't 
get nothin' easy in this world, 'less you're a crook, 
and if y'are you'll soon wind up in a place where 
ya don't wanta be. But still, a good-iookin' girl 
like you, Katie, shouldn't hafta stand on her feet 

75 



BLACKGUARD 

all day. Don't be afraid, I'll make it easier for ya 
pretty soon." 

"Now Charle-e, the way you flatter is some- 
thin' terrible," said Katie, with a simper of nude 
delight. "I suppose Mister Felman would like to 
get some nice girl too, wouldn't you, Mister Fel- 
man? Or maybe you've got two or three already. 
You men can never be trusted." 

"No, I haven't been lucky," said Carl, secretly 
exploding with a laughter that was partly directed 
at himself. 

He had been afraid that these girls would prove 
to be of the shallowly sophisticated, carefully 
sulky type and he felt relieved at their coarsely 
direct naivetes. An axe, with baby-blue ribbon 
tied around it, was more entertaining than a 
pocket-knife steeped in cheap perfume. 

"No, I haven't been lucky," he went on, "but, 
you know, we're always waiting for the right one." 

"Why, that's just what Lucy always says," said 
Katie, rolling her eyes as she looked at the other 
girl in a ponderously insinuating manner. "She's 
always been rowmantic, like you. Mister Felman. 
Why if I was to tell you of all the fellas she's 
turned down you wouldn't believe me." 

"No, perhaps I wouldn't," answered Carl, keep- 

76 



BLACKGUARD 

ing his face sober with a massive effort. 

"Now, Katie, you keep quiet," said Lucy, and 
Carl was surprised at the actual anger that hard- 
ened her voice. "I'm perfectly able to talk about 
my own business without your helpin' an' it's not 
nice to be sayin' such things to a gen'lman who's 
just met me. I'm sure he's not interested in my 
past an' even if he is I'm the one to tell him an* 
not you. You make me tired!" 

"Well, of all things," cried Katie. "I was only 
try in' to be nice an' here you go and get real 
angry about it. I've never had a girl frien' who 
was as touchy as you are. I didn't really tell 
Mister Felman anything about you 'cept that 
you was rowmantic, an' that's nothin' to be 
ashamed about." 

"See here, stop all this quarrelin'," said Peter- 
sen, to whom the speech of women was always an 
ignorance that assailed the patience of masculine 
wisdom. "You women can talk for ten hours 
about nothin'! I didn't bring my friend down to 
have him lissen to your squabblin'. Cut it out, I 
tell ya." 

This storm in an earthen jar was amusing to 
Carl. He marvelled at the ability of these people 
to whip words into redundantly nondescript droves 

77 



BLACKGUARD 

in which thought gasped weakly as it strove to 
follow the uproar of simple emotions. Continually, 
he felt the reactions of a visitor from another 
planet, witnessing an incredible vaudeville-show. 
All human beings to him were hollow and secretly 
despairing falsehoods separated only by the clev- 
erness or crudeness of their verbal disguises, and 
he heard them with an emotion that was evenly 
divided between amazement and a chuckle. 

"I'm sure that Miss Anderson meant no harm," 
said Carl, with a whim to become the glib peace- 
maker. "She was just feeling gay and frisky, 
and I took her words in the right spirit. Miss 
Melkin was a little angry because she thought that 
I didn't understand Miss Anderson's intentions, 
but she needn't be afraid. I never misinterpret. 
It was just a little misunderstanding on both sides 
so let's forget about it." 

"Mister Felman, you're such a perfect gen'l- 
man," said Katie, blithely. 

Carl looked at Lucy and saw that a wistfully 
surprised expression was liking his words and try- 
ing to explain them to her mind. It was the look 
of a baby flirting with an incongruous sophistica- 
tion and striving to create a fusion between ingen- 
uousness and a certain sensual wisdom learned in 
the alleys of life. 

78 



BLACKGUARD 

"Ah, these starved dwarfs, how little it takes to 
please them," Carl sighed to himself. 

After the wiry, tawdry spectacle of the vaude- 
ville show, with its weary acrobats and falsetto 
singers, the four visited a grimly gaudy Chinese 
restaurant, where the Orient becomes an awk- 
ward prostitute for Occidental dollars, and while 
Petersen and Katie gossiped about their friends 
Carl and Lucy traded hesitant sentences and 
threw little sensual appeals from the steady gaze 
of their eyes. Lucy, with her look of a stunned 
infant, made him feel vaguely troubled — the 
ghost of a fatherly impulse. After the meal the 
group separated, since the girls lived in different 
parts of the city, and as Carl and Lucy rode in the 
trolley car they tried to make their anticipations 
more at ease, with the veils of conversation. 

"Why do you live?" asked Carl, abruptly, to 
see whether one or two words in her answer might 
be different from what he expected. 

"What a funny question !" cried Lucy. "I don't 
know. Maybe it's because I wanta be happy. I 
never am mosta the time, but then I'm always 
hopin' that things'll change. Why'd you ask me 
that funny question?" 

The fumbling bewilderment of her words irri- 

79 



BLACKGUARD 

tated and saddened Carl, simultaneously, and in 
an effort to slay the reaction he simulated a com- 
passion. 

"Happiness doesn't always speak the truth," he 
said, struggling to mould his words so that they 
could reach her understanding. "It's sometimes a 
beautiful lie. You understand ? A beautiful, soft, 
desperate lie. And we say the lie because we 
want to change ourselves and somebody else to 
something that can make us forget our smallness. 
You see, we are not very large, either in our bodies 
or in our thoughts, and we try to make ourselves 
several feet taller, tall enough to put our heads 
on a level with the trees, tall enough to imagine 
that the wind respects us. Beautiful, desperate 
lies. Do you understand?" 

"I don't quite understand you," said Lucy. "You 
speak so different from all the men I know, so 
different, and yet I like the way you speak. Do 
you mean it's not good for anyone to be happy?" 

"If your happiness doesn't put you to sleep it's 
good for you. When people try to be happy for 
more than a little while it makes them sleepy. 
And, you see, it's much better to be very much 
alive, or very dead." 

"Honest, I'd like to get what you're sayin'," 

80 



BLACKGUARD 

said Lucy, perplexed and softly candid. "Maybe 
you mean that we oughta keep movin' all the time, 
hearin' and seein' different things, an' maybe 
you're right about that. I get tired of goin' down 
to work every mornin' and coming back to the 
same room every night. I'd like to travel around, 
an' see different people an' places, an' find out 
what everything's like. But I guess I never will." 
"It's much easier than you imagine," said Carl. 
"Just pack up your grip some morning and ride 
away to another city and see what happens there. 
After you've done it you'll wonder what held you 
back." 

"Oh I just couldn't do that. I'd make my 
mother so unhappy if I did, an' besides, I'd be 
afraid of goin' somewhere all alone. I might not 
find any work in the place where I went, an' then 
I'd be up against it. I'd like to travel around with 
plenty of money, an' nothin' to worry me, an' " 

Her words trailed off into a revealing silence, 
and Carl smiled sadly at the little, pitifully obvious 
hint within her faltering. Perhaps it might be 
best to marry this simple, mildly wistful, ignorant 
girl and surrender himself to monotonous toil and 
sensual warmth, forgetting the schemes that were 
torturing his heart and mind. The reaction cap- 

8i 



BLACKGUARD 

tured him for a time and then died. No, he was 
gripped by a snarling, nimble blackguard who was 
determined to lead him to destruction or victory. 
And in the meantime, here was sensual forgetf ul- 
ness — an interlude with a girl to whom happiness 
was merely physical desire captivated by filmy 
and soothing disguises. 

They reached her home, a grey cottage in the 
suburbs, with a little yard of dusty grass and a 
modest porch. It bore an aspect of abject sim- 
plicity, and that meditative leer possessed by the 
fronts of all cottages. They sat in a hammock 
on the porch, and Carl suddenly kissed her with 
the theatrical intensity of one who is trying to 
shake off a deliberate role. The gasping expostu- 
lations of her voice were contradicted by the limp- 
ness of her body, and sighing at this prearranged 
incongruity, Carl kissed her again, still feeling 
like a skillful charlatan and still hoping to lure 
himself into a tumultuous spontaneity. This time 
she was silent but gripped his shoulders with both 
hands, while little shades of fright and desire 
gambled for her face. Suddenly, a meek candor 
came to her eyes and the seriousness of a child 
lost in an overwhelming forest moulded her lips. 

"Will you be good to me if I let you ?" she whis- 
pered. 

82 



BLACKGUARD 

The pathetic, cringing frankness of her words 
made a stabbing lunge at his deliberateness and 
a feeling of troubled tenderness mastered his 
heart. He wept inaudibly, as though he himself 
had become a begging child, and the illusion of 
rare experience, cheated and twisted out of his 
life, returned to betray him. His head struck her 
shoulder like the death of regret. 



83 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER VII. 

From that night on his life fell into a regular 
stride — days of wrenching labor and nights of 
rebellious weariness, broken by intervals in which 
he crept, like a swindled, dirty child, to the arms 
of Lucy, washed into a dreamless rest by the 
simple flow of her desire for him and her sight- 
less worship. To her he was an enigmatic, statu- 
esque prince delighting her with queer words 
which she could finger as though they were new 
toys and bringing her an eager compression of 
grief and joy which she had never known before. 
She realized, dimly, that he was fundamentally 
alien to her, and she often said to herself: "Some 
day he'll meet a child who c'n understand all of 
his funny words and then he'll forget about me," 
but this fear only increased the stubbornness of 
her grasp. And so his life wavered between toil, 
and sensual peace, and little mildly stunted poems 
until one morning in late autumn when, at the 
main office of the telephone company, he was 
discharged with the information that his job had 
been merely a temporary one. 

84 



BLACKGUARD 

"Thanks, old boy," he said loudly in the face of 
the astonished cashier. "If you knew what a 
relief this is to me you'd take a drink with me to 
celebrate the occasion." 

"Now what in the devil's the matter with you?" 
— the man voiced his peevish perplexity as he 
fished for Carl's pay envelope. 

"I was getting accustomed to the chains, but 
now that you've benignly removed them I'll make 
another effort to escape," he answered, in the grip 
of a gay and aimless relief. 

The clerk tapped his forehead, with a scowl, 
and contemptuously tossed over the envelope. 
Carl carelessly stuffed the sixteen dollars into a 
pocket and walked out upon the crowded down- 
town streets. The streets were touched with the 
middle of forenoon, that hour when the business 
section of an American city is most leisurely and 
nondescript in its make-up. The wagons and 
trucks were not yet bombarding time with the 
full climax of their inane roar and the flatly 
hideous elevated railroad trains were firing at 
longer intervals. Noise had not yet become the 
confused and staggering slave of an ill-tempered 
avarice. The nomads and idlers of the city's popu- 
lace were flitting in and out among housewives on 

85 



BLACKGUARD 

an early shopping-tour and those sleekly bloated 
men who stroll belatedly to their "offices. A sleepy 
young vaudeville actress, painted and satiated, 
hurried to some booking-agency; a middle-aged 
pickpocket emphasized his grey and white checked 
suit with sturdy limbs and examined passersby, 
with the face of a shaved fox ; an undertaker, tall 
and old, paced along with that air of worried 
dignity which his calling affects; a fairly young 
housewife pounded the sedate roundness of her 
body over the pavement and held the hand of a 
small, oppressed boy ; a stock-raiser from the west 
slid his bulky ruddiness along the street, while 
beneath his broad-brimmed hat his face held an 
expression of awe-stricken delight; a college-girl, 
slender and carefully hidden by silk, strove with 
every mincing twist of her body to remind you 
that she was pretty; a youth, trimly effeminate 
and attended by an inexpensive perfume, trotted 
along, eyeing the scene with an affected air of dis- 
approval. 

The streets were cluttered with a ludicrous, 
artificial union of people — people who were 
close together and yet essentially unaware of each 
other's presence, and the invisible, purposeless 
walls of civilization crossed each other every- 

86 



BLACKGUARD 

where. If he swerved two inches to the right the 
chained trance of this lonely farm-hand might 
strike the shoulder of this dully wounded cham- 
bermaid from the Rialto Hotel, and with this hap- 
pening their lives might become an inch less bur- 
dened and struggling. Their sidelong glances 
cross for a moment, like tensely held spears, but 
they pass each other from cautious habit, strid- 
ing to more prearranged and empty contacts. 
Civilization has raised wall-making to a fine art, 
striving to hide its dreamlessness beneath an as- 
pect of complex reticence, and keeping its human 
atoms feeble and solitary, since pressed together 
they might break it into ruins. During the rush- 
hours of a city you can see those streams of people 
who are busily making and repairing the walls, 
but during the lulls in the fever upon city streets 
you may observe the stragglers, wanderers, and 
grown-up children who are not quite connected 
with this task and who humbly or viciously hurdle 
the barriers that separate them. 

These thoughts and emotions formed them- 
selves in Carl's mood as he strolled through the 
clattering, mercenary sounds of a midwestern 
city. The joy of not being compelled to cope with 
undesired physical movements brought its light- 

87 



BLACKGUARD 

ness to his legs, and he hurriedly fished for secrets 
from the thousands of faces gliding past him. 
This shrouded girl with a scowling face — was she 
meditating upon the possibility of suicide, or won- 
dering why her sweetheart had failed to purchase 
a more expensive box of candy ? Each face curved 
its flesh over a triviality or an important affair 
and swiftly taunted his imagination, challenging 
it to remove the masks that confronted it. 

"Life holds a measure of anticipation and mys- 
tery because people for the most part pass each 
other in silence. If they stopped to talk to each 
other they would become transparent and weari- 
some." 

As Carl walked along hope began to sing its 
juvenile ballade within his contorted heart. He 
planned to send his poems to the magazines and he 
felt strengthened by the unexpected lull of this 
late autumn morning. He hurried to his favorite 
bench in the public square, one that he alv/ays 
occupied if it happened to be vacant when he 
passed. He had a shyly whimsical fancy — a last 
remnant of youth asserting itself within him — 
that his touch upon this bench stayed there while 
he was absent and gave a sense of invisible, prod- 
ding communion to other pilgrim-acrobats who 

88 



BLACKGUARD 

occupied this seat at times — an abashed bit of sen- 
timentality evading itself with an image. Filled 
with the alert meeting of hope and bitterness he 
wrote with a degree of fluid ease that had never 
visited him before, and for the first time his 
lyrics grazed a phrase or two that rumored recal- 
citrantly of a proud story known as beauty. In 
one attempted poem he asserted that an old, 
blind, Greek huckster on the side street of an 
American city had suddenly towered above the 
barrenly angular buildings, in a massive reincar- 
nation of Homer, and he wrote in part : 

A purplish pallor stole 

Over your antique face — 

The warning of a soul 

Rising with tireless grace. 

Rising above your cart 

Of apples, figs, and plums, 

And with its swelling art 

Deriding the city's drums. 

With a quivering immersion he bent over his 
paper, lost to the keen realities of a city day. 
Sidling vagrants and transients from small towns 
glanced at him with morose disfavor and some- 
times stopped to stare at this shabby young man 
whose head was never raised from his writing. 

89 



BLACKGUARD 

His abstraction was an insult to their sense of idle 
release. He wrote for hours and only paused 
when hunger of a different kind began irresistibly 
to whisper within him, for he had not eaten since 
morning. It was six o'clock when he hastened 
from the park. He joined the homeward bound 
masses, feeling satiated and apart, and dreading 
the evening contact with his sagging, verbose 
parents. They were sitting and standing in two 
of the few postures that life still absentmindedly 
allowed them — bending over newspaper and fry- 
ing-pan. 

"Well, I've lost my job," he said to his father. 

His father dropped the newspaper and his 
mother shuffled in from the kitchen. 

"Lost your job — what do you mean?" said his 
mother with slow incredulity, as though she had 
just escaped being crushed by a falling wall. 

"They told me this morning that it had only 
been a temporary one and they paid me off. I 
thanked the clerk for his news but he didn't seem 
to take it in the right spirit." 

"Ach, I knew it would happen, I knew it," said 
Mrs. Felman. "Here's what you get from your 
ma-anooal labor! What kind of work is that for 
an educated boy like you ? With your brains, now, 

90 



BLACKGUARD 

you could go out on the road and sell goods. You 
should have more get-up about you. Mrs. Feins- 
thai was telling me at my whist-club today that 
her son Harry is making piles of money with 
Liebman and Company. Sells notions and knick- 
knacks. You could easy do the same if you had 
any sense in your head." 

"Carrie's right, this slavery is no work for a 
smart man," said Mr. Felman. "Any fool, you 
know, can work with his hands, but it takes real 
intelligence to make a man buy something. I 
want you to be able to laugh at people, and feel 
independent, and not be a poor schlemiel all your 
life." 

"Well, you've been a travelling salesman for 
twenty years," said Carl, with a weary smile, "and 
before that you tried a general merchandise store, 
but it doesn't seem to have brought you much 
money or happiness. You recommend a treacher- 
ous wine. The thing that you've fought for has 
always scarred and eluded you. What's the rea- 
son?" 

Mr. Felman lowered his head while the round 
fatness of his face revealed a huddled confusion 
of emotions in which shame and annoyance pre- 
dominated. He sat, tormenting his greyish red 

91 



BLACKGUARD 

moustache, as though it were a fraudulent badge, 
and gazing with still eyes at a newspaper which he 
was not reading. 

"Perhaps I've inherited nothing from you save 
your curious inability at making money," said 
Carl, trying to feel a ghost of compassion for this 
petrified, minor soldier lost in the uproar of a 
battle but still worshipping his glittering general. 
"You've spent all of your life in chasing a frigid 
will-o'-the-wisp, made out of the lining of your 
heart, and you want me to stumble after the same 
mutilated futility. You're not unintelligent, as 
far as business ability goes, and yet, you've always 
been doomed to a kind of respectable poverty. 
Something else within you must have constantly 
fought with another delusion to produce such a 
result. You can't simply blame it on luck — that's 
an overworked excuse. Perhaps you failed to win 
your god because you've never been able to teach 
efficiency and strength to the spirit of cruelty 
within you. You have not been remorselessly 
shrewd, my father, and now you are paying the 
penalty." 

"Well, because I've been a fool that's no sign 
that you should be one, too," answered Mr. Fel- 
man in a voice of reluctant and secretly tortured 

92 . 



BLACKGUARD 

self-reproach. "Yes, I've been too kind-hearted 
for my own good, dammit, but I want that you 
should be different. It's been too easy for people 
to swindle me. Yes, I want you to show them 
something that your poor old father couldn't. 
Yes. And as for your talk about chasing money, 
tell me, how can a man live decent without plenty 
of money ? How can he ?" 

"We would have our nice store this very minute 
if your father had listened to me," said Mrs. Fel- 
man, mournfully. "He never would let me handle 
the reins. I know how to be firm with people, 
believe me, but your father would always give 
credit to every Tom-Dick-and-Harry that walked 
into the store. And whenever he did have money 
he always gambled it away. Gambling has been 
the ruination of his life! All of your wildness, 
Carl, has come from your father's side and not 
from mine!" 

Mr. i^'elman looked at his son with an embar- 
rassed admission of secret sins, while for a mo- 
ment he became a faun lamenting his awkward- 
ness, and his uneasy smile quivered as it tried to 
say : "Alas, I am not so much better than you are, 
my crazy, foolish son." Carl grinned in return 
and for the first time in his life was on the verge 

93 



BLACKGUARD 

of feeling a slight communion with his shamefaced 
father. As the mother went on with her endless 
story of the father's crimes and incapacities the 
rubbing of her words produced a glimmer of ill- 
temper. 

"Noo, don't you ever stop ?" he cried. "Always 
nagging about the past! I might be a rich man 
now if you hadn't driven me crazy with your end- 
less complaints and hollering. Never a moment 
of peace from the day I married you." 

"I'll have to give both of you something else to 
complain about," said Carl. "I'm going to stop 
working for a while and write poetry, and send it 
away to magazines." 

"Ach, I thought those writing notions were out 
of your head," cried Mrs. Felman. "Who will buy 
your good-for-nothing stuff? I can't understand 
a word of it myself! Writing again! Will my 
miseries never end?" 

Mr. Felman glared at his son and the old hos- 
tility fell opaquely between them. 

"Between you and your mother I'll be in the 
grave soon!" he shouted. "I'm done with you!" 

He arose and stalked out of the apartment, mut- 
tering and producing a loud period of sound as he 
closed the door. 

94 



BLACKGUARD 

Al Levy strolled into the dining room, tri- 
umphantly tinkering with one of the points of 
his small black moustache; lightly whistling a 
tune from some latest musical comedy ; and bear- 
ing upon his face the look of bored patience which 
he assumed when in the presence of an inferior 
being. After he and Carl had exchanged con- 
strained "helloes" he sat at the table and ner- 
vously interested himself in his cigar, as though 
silently signaling for future words. 

"See here, Carl, I don't want to butt in, and of 
course, it's none of my business, but I couldn't 
help hearing some of the argument that you've 
just had with your parents and I want to give you 
a little advice, purely for your own good. You're 
on the wrong track, old boy. You're living in a 
world that wasn't made to order for you and you 
can't change it. If you don't bow to the world the 
old steam-roller will get you, and what satisfaction 
is that going to bring you ? This poetry of yours 
is all very well as a side-line, something to fill in 
the time when you're not working, and of course 
it's very pretty stuff. I like to read poetry myself 
sometimes. But really you shouldn't take it more 
seriously than that. I'm telling you all this 

95 



BLACKGUARD 

because you've really got a fairly good head on 
you and I hate to see you go wrong." 

The sleekly loquacious man in front of him, 
offering his shop-worn little adulterations of 
worldly wisdom, aroused Carl to a lightly vicious 
mood. 

"You've wandered away from your natural 
field, Levy," he said. "Talk about the cheap jew- 
elry that you sell, or the physical merits of a 
woman, or the next candidate for mayor, or the 
latest prize-fight, but don't speak about something 
that's simply an irritating mystery to you. You 
know as much about poetry as I do about credits 
and discounts, but you're a swaggering, muddy 
fool who imagines that the wisdom of the world 
has kissed his head. I'm not interested in you or 
your words — you're simply five crude senses 
dressed in a blue serge suit and trying to scoop in 
as much drooling pleasure as they can before they 
decay. Go out to your poolroom or down-town 
theater and leave me in peace!" 

Levy gasped blankly for a moment and then 
frowned with an enormous hatred. 

"Why, you stupid fool, this is the thanks I get 
for giving you a little sensible advice ! " he cried. 
"You think that you're better than everyone else 

96 



BLACKGUARD 

with all the rot you write about roses and love, but 
let me tell you something, a common bricklayer 
is more important than you are, any day in the 
year ! A man like that is helping the progress of 
the world while you're nothing but a puffed-up 
little idler ! And even you have got to do manual 
labor because you're not fit for anything else. 
You're just a bag of easy words. If it wasn't for 
your parents I'd punch you in the face and teach 
you a lesson!" 

Mrs. Felman, who had been knitting on the rear 
porch, rushed into the room. 

"Boys, boys, stop it!" she cried, in anguish. 
"Are you out of your minds — fighting in the 
house! Don't pay any attention to what Carl 
says, Al. You know he's crazy and not respon- 
sible." 

"Well, after all, you're right, I shouldn't pay 
any attention to him," said Levy with a sulky 
loftiness. "I only spoke to him for your sake, 
you know, but I'll leave him alone after this." 

Carl grimaced with the aid of his eyebrows and 
suppressed the easy words with which he could 
have clubbed the man in front of him. After 
Levy departed Carl fled to the street to escape his 
mother's enraged words concerning the possible 
loss of a valuable roomer. 

97 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER VIII. 

During the next two weeks Carl sat in his 
drably dark room, slowly copying his poems with 
a stiff, perfect handwriting and mailing them to 
magazines and newspapers, but rejection-slips, 
fresh from the printer, began to reach him with 
each return mail. Many of his uncertain, mys- 
tical poems were equal to the quality of verse 
maintained by certain American publications, but 
editors scarcely ever trouble themselves to read 
verse that is copied in pen and ink and bears the 
spirals of deceptively boyish handwriting. Under 
the blow of each returned poem Carl receded inch 
by inch to his old cell of faltering insignificance. 
He went back to the tame routines of physical 
labor, finding work as a plumber's assistant, and 
still consoled himself by creeping, like a soiled and 
weeping child, to Lucy's blind and half-motherly 
worship. 

One evening, after he had stepped into the 
brightly dismal sitting-room of Lucy's home, he 
noticed an uneasy politeness in the greeting of 
her parents — the usual well-smeared cordiality 

98 



BLACKGUARD 

was absent. At first he felt that he might have 
made a mistake, but one glance at the nervous 
distress upon Lucy's transparent little face indi- 
cated that some change had taken place in her 
family's regard for him. Lucy was never suc- 
cessful in her efforts at evasion, and each one of 
the pitifully comical masks that she wore merely 
snugly revealed the outline of the emotion which 
they were attempting to conceal. With a strained 
gaiety she suggested a walk and after they had 
reached the street he questioned her. 

"Well, what's the trouble. Luce? The graceful, 
January note in your parent's voices was not 
quite expected. Tell me what it's all about." 

"Oh, it's nothing, nothing, Carl dear." 

"I'm quite sure that it's nothing in reality, 
since your parents are almost incapable of 
thought, but at any rate, you might explain the 
empty gesture to me." 

"Carl, you're talking so funny again. I adore 
you when you say things that I can't understand. 
But, oh Carl, I've forgotten, I mustn't say that to 
you any more. I mustn't. You don't know what's 
happened." 

"No, I don't. What is it?" 

"Why, my father says that he's convinced by 

99 



BLACKGUARD 

now that your intentions to me aren't serious an' 
he says that he doesn't want me to go with you 
any more. He says that you're only triflin' with 
my affections else you'd have asked me to marry 
you long ago, an' my mother says I shouldn't go 
with you 'cause you don't seem to have any ambi- 
tion to rise in the world an' 'cause you haven't 
enough money to support a wife. . . . Gee, if you 
knew the jawin' they've been givin' me for the 
last two nights!" 

"Yes, but why has all this come so suddenly?" 
asked Carl. 

"I don't want to tell you, Carl." 

"You might as well, Luce. I can see part of it 
on your face now, because you always talk best 
when you're silent. Tell me." 

"Well, you know my second cousin Fred has 
always been runnin' after me, only I've always 
been cool to him because I don't love him, of 
course, but a couple of nights ago he came to my 
father an' said that he wanted to marry me an' 
that I wouldn't have him. An' ever since then 
they've all been on top of me! He's got a store 
on the north side, a gents' furnishing store, an' he 
makes piles of money, an' all my family are just 
crazy for me to marry him. They say I'm just 

100 



BLACKGUARD 

wastin' my time with you an' they've forbidden 
me to see you after tonight." 

Carl felt the incongruous embrace of amuse- 
ment and compassion as he listened to her simple, 
broken, troubled words. This thinly yearning, 
stifled girl who had folded him in the arms of her 
puzzled adoration, was life really on the verge of 
wounding the diminutive misty mendicant that 
was her heart? He felt helpless, and a little 
guilty because he was not as troubled as he should 
have been. 

"Do you want to give me up ?" he asked. 

"Carl, you know I don't! You know it. But, 
Carl, you wouldn't ever marry me, would you ?" 

"No, I'm not the kind of a person that you ought 
to marry. Luce." 

She was silent for a time and he watched her 
with a pitying question. Had he been unfair to 
this poignantly cringing child? Yes, but unfair- 
ness was inevitable when people from those differ- 
ent planets contained within an earth yield to a 
surface emotional attraction. 

"Carl, I've always known that we'd hafta part 
sometime," she said, "only I tried to make believe 
that I didn't know it. But I did. We're too differ- 
ent from each other, Carl, an' you know so much 

lOI 



BLACKGUARD 

more than I do an' you're so much better than I 
am. I wanted to hold on to you 'cause I wanted 
to make you happy, but all the time I knew that 
we wasn't meant for each other. I knew it so 
well!" 

"I'm not in any way better than you are," said 
Carl. "It's just that we each want different 
things from the world. You want to settle down 
in a home, and polish your kettles, and sing to 
your children, and blithely wait for your tired 
husband every night, while I want to write fool- 
ish words on slips of paper and escape from the 
world around me." 

"But, Carl, it'll be so hard for me to leave you," 
she said, in the mournful, dazed voice of one who 
turns away from a stone wall of whose existence 
he is not quite certain. 

A tumult of frail inquiries found the corners of 
her face and lips. Her breasts heaving beneath 
the blue muslin waist suggested the movements 
of loosely despairing hands. She sat with Carl 
on the grass of a park and wept in a barely audible 
manner as though she were intent upon giving 
firmer outlines to a blurred and elusive grief. 
Carl felt a softly potent disgust with himself and 
life. Human beings — what did they ever bring 
each other except pain cunningly disguised or 

1 02 



BLACKGUARD 

reaching for a phantom ecstasy? Now he would 
be alone again ; the slender thread binding him to 
animated life would snap; while this child, who 
held a cloud where a brain should have resided, 
would hide her glimpse of a grotesquely forbidden 
heaven and plod back to the soothing subterfuges 
of her world. Flitting lies seducing a black void 
into an attitude of false friendship. A stumbling 
urge, mistaking its own drops of perspiring ardor 
for permanent, actual jewels. 

As they stood upon the porch of her home she 
looked at the darkened windows and then clutched 
the lapels of his coat. 

"They're all in bed now," she whispered. "Carl, 
I've got to have you once more before you go. 
I've got to. Maybe I'm a bad girl, maybe, I don't 
know, but I want to hold you again." 

"This will be the least thing that I can give 
you," said Carl inaudibly as they sat upon the 
hammock. With great care he tried to form 
within himself the intensity of a despairing father, 
drawing the swift incense of motion into a fare- 
well to his child, in the hope that she might be 
idiotic enough to preserve it afterwards as a 
tangible comfort. 

He closed his eyes as he kissed her, a little 
afraid to look into her face. 

103 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER IX. 

One Sunday morning, Carl sat at home, lightly- 
wandering through a newspaper. On the previous 
night he had met Petersen and had yielded to an 
invitation to accompany "two swell brunettes 
who don't object to a gay time," and the recollec- 
tion of his violent, drunken contortions came to 
him like a wierdly teasing dream of no particular 
significance but leaving the temptation of nausea 
behind it. He had released a desecrating ghost 
of himself from the sneering recesses of his self- 
despair. Yes, you could burn away the sensual 
rubbish, with derisive gestures, but your empti- 
ness and weariness always returned for their slow 
revenge. He sought to put his thoughts to sleep 
with the hasty versions of loves, catastrophes, 
and law-suits that winked maliciously at him from 
the newspaper. 

In the middle of one page he came upon a 
rectangle of gossip concerning a poetry magazine 
of whose existence he had never known, and 
darting from his insensitive trance he lingered 
greedily over the news. Through the efforts of 

104 



BLACKGUARD 

an elderly poetess several society people had 
agreed to endow a small magazine that would be 
entirely devoted to verse, and the newspaper item 
was heralding the fact that one of these people 
had contributed a sonnet to a recent issue of the 
magazine. "Mr. Robert Endicott, the well-known 
clubman and member of fashionable sets, appears 
with a delicate contribution in this month's issue 
of The Poetry Review, our aristocratic little maga- 
zine of the muse. This will be a surprise to those 
who know Mr. Endicott only in his role of 
business-man and society leader." Carl strove to 
be properly impressed by the surprise, decorating 
it with the Order of the Nasty Chuckle. 

He felt that it might be consoling to receive 
a rejection slip from an upper- world magazine of 
this kind — a dab of caviar on the empty plate — 
and so he sent them three poems. The paper 
oblong came, but its blank side held the following 
note: "Dear Mr. Felman: Your work interests 
me. Won't you drop into the office some time? 
Clara Messenger." 

What men call triumph is a fanciful exaltation 
that may fall alike upon atoms and temples — a 
grandiose child of hope, whose mother is egoism 
and whose father is pain. Men, whose life is but 

105 



BLACKGUARD 

a sensitive or oblivious second — a fleeting stam- 
pede within mist — seek the absurd consolation of 
believing that their work will become immortal, 
and this phantom lie has induced many a soldier 
to writhe upon some trivial battlefield and many 
a minor poet to fight with threats of the gutter, 
Carl Felman, obscure, gasping struggler, commun- 
ing with the marks left by endless whips, felt 
foolishly thrilled at this first glimpse of personal 
attention from a magazine and became like a 
swain to whom a glove has been thrown from 
an enticingly high balcony. He stood peering up 
with a timid excitement. 

On the following afternoon he managed to leave 
the plumbing shop, with a plea of illness, and 
raced to the office of the magazine. A feathery 
swirl of quickly purchased emotions — fragments 
of a youth that had been shattered — revolved 
within his heart. As he closed the door of the 
large office he saw two women seated at different 
desks and poised over the rustle of papers. One 
was elderly and sedate, and her sober clothes were 
reprimanding a substantial body. Beneath a sur- 
vival of greyish-brown hair, plainly gathered, the 
narrow oval of her face looked at life with a 
politely questioning air. It was the mellowly 

io6 



BLACKGUARD 

distorted expression of one who has arrived at 
final convictions regarding the major parts of 
life, and is patiently and inflexibly regarding the 
lesser perceptions surrounding her. Her slightly 
wrinkled face was dominated by a long, thin nose 
and thin, tightly expectant lips, and it seemed 
that her tired emotions had gone to sleep and 
were staring out from a dream of suave wake- 
fulness. The other woman was hovering near the 
last climax of her youth, and her slender body 
rose unobtrusively to the pale repressions of her 
face. Small and round, her face carried a well- 
trimmed self-satisfaction — the reward of one 
whose dreams have lived inwardly, with only an 
occasional sip of forbidden cordials. Her loosely 
parted lips guarded a receding chin and her barely 
curved nose ascended to large brown eyes and a 
high forehead. 

Carl walked to her desk and stood for a moment 
like a child in a cumbersome robe who is waiting 
for some inevitable rebuke. The harshly weary 
assurance which he was able to display to other 
people vanished in this imagined shrine of an 
unattained art. The young woman looked up with 
courteous blankness. 

"My name is Carl Felman. You wrote me a note 

107 



BLACKGUARD 

last week," said Carl, delicately groping for the 
inconsequential words. 

"Oh, yes, I remember" — her face attained a 
careful smile, tempered by a modest curiosity. 
"I'm so glad that you came down." 

She turned to the other woman. 

"Mary, this is Mr. Felman, the gentleman that 
I spoke to you about. He sent us a rather inter- 
esting group of poems, you know." 

Carl winced at the word "rather" — it was asso- 
ciated to him with "more or less," "somewhat," 
"somehow," and "to some extent," those words 
and phrases with which cultured people manage 
to say nothing and yet preserve the faint 
appearance of saying something. His breathless 
attention disappeared and was replaced by the old 
morose aloofness. If this woman had asserted 
that his poems were trivial or stifled, he would 
have respected her, but now he spat contemptu- 
ously at the smooth veil of her words. 

Mary Aldridge, editor of The Poetry Review, 
moved her lips into an attitude that came within 
a hair's breadth of being a smile — an expression 
of slightly amused and restrained condescension. 
She lifted a pencil as though it were an age-old 
scepter held by practiced fingers. 

io8 



BLACKGUARD 

"How do you do, Mr. Felman," she said. 

Some people are able to say "how do you do" 
in a way that makes it sound like "why are you 
here?" and Carl inwardly complimented her on 
this minor ability and said his repetition in a 
voice that made it mean "slip down, fathead." 
After this exchange of vocal inflections, part of 
the general vacuity with which human beings 
greet each other for the first or last time, he 
seated himself and clutched a roll of manuscripts 
in the manner of a father who is frantically 
shielding his child from some invisible danger. 

"I sent you some poems which were returned, 
but I have some others here," he said. "Perhaps 
you will do me the favor of reading them. I am, 
of course, anxious to know what may be wrong 
with my work, and also what faint virtues it may 
hold. Sometimes I feel sure that I am not a poet 
and I allow myself the luxury of becoming angry 
at the persistent longing that makes me run after 
futilities. Will you read some of these poems and 
tell me whether I am a fool, or a faltering pilgrim, 
or anything definite?" 

The abashed and yet softly incisive candor 
would have unloosened or entertained the emo- 
tions of anyone except Mary Aldridge. She 

109 



BLACKGUARD 

regarded him with a coldly amused impatience. 

"We-ell, I'm very busy just now," she said, 
"but I'll glance through some of your things. As 
I recall, your work had a rather promising line 
here and there." 

He handed her his roll and she scanned the 
poems, thrusting each one aside with a quick 
frown. She lingered a bit over the last one, in 
which he had extracted a sleeping Homer from 
the soiled and cowering figure of a blind Greek 
peddler. 

"M-m, this one isn't so bad," she said, "though 
I think that the last lines are a little forced." 

"If I decide to alter them, will you take the 
poem?" asked Carl, bluntly. 

"Oh, no, no, Mr. Felman; your work is by no 
means good enough for publication," she answered. 
"I merely meant that this poem in particular had 
an element of interest." 

Accustomed to blows of all kinds, Carl felt 
relieved that her frigid shroud had been finally 
lifted, and with a smile he reached for his cap. 
Conversation is merely a tenuous or sturdy pro- 
tection given to an instinctive like or dislike, 
and with their first words people unconsciously 
reveal the attitude toward each other which they 

no 



BLACKGUABD 

will afterward try to excuse and defend with 
great deliberation. Carl hated the woman in 
front of him, not because she had slighted his 
work, but because she held to him an attenuated 
and brightly burnished hypocrisy that was like 
a shriveled mask incessantly polished by her 
words. He could have imagined her stamping 
upon a hyacinth as though she were conferring 
a careful favor upon the petals and calyx. Mary 
Aldridge, on her part, disliked the straight lines 
of intent which she could sense beneath his terse 
questions and missed the bland insincerities of 
those smoothly adjusted postures known as good 
manners. Life to her was a series of stiffly 
draped and modulated curves, violated only by 
rare moments of guarded exasperation and anger. 

"Would you advise me to stop writing?" asked 
Carl. 

"No, indeed," she answered, with her first small 
smile. "Your work is rather promising and you 
seem to be quite young. Some of it reminds me 
of Arthur Symons. Of course, I don't think that 
you will ever become a great poet, but we need 
lesser voices as well as greater ones, you know." 

"Would you mind if I asked you to stop using 
that word ra-ather and try a little spontaneous 
directness?" asked Carl, blithely. 

Ill 



BLACKGUARD 

She rose suddenly and addressed the other 
woman, ignoring his words as though they had 
been a trivial insult. 

"I've just remembered that I must meet Mr. 
Seeman at three," she said. "Fm afraid that I 
shall have to leave you with this impulsive gen- 
tleman." 

Carl stood up, but the other woman revealed 
with an unrestrained smile that she was actually 
aware of his presence. 

"Won't you stay awhile?" she asked. "We can 
talk a bit over your work, if you care." 

Carl looked at her with suspicion and interest 
— a trace of gracious attention in this place. He 
resolved to explore the seeming phenomenon and 
settled back in his chair, while Mary Aldridge, 
with a barely audible farewell, walked out of the 
office. 

"Don't you think you were a little crudely 
sarcastic in your last remark to Miss Aldridge?" 
asked Clara Messenger. 

"I like an axe sometimes," said Carl, "although 
I don't worship it monotonously. For certain 
purposes it works far better than the swifter 
exuberance of a stiletto. Unless a person is 
unassumingly frank to me I don't feel that he 
has earned a delicate retort." 

112 



BLACKGUARD 

"Why,- it's impossible to live in the world with 
a code like that. One would have to become a 
hermit." 

"No, even hermits are never absolutely isolated. 
Living on another planet would be the only rem- 
edy, I guess." 

"What a curious, lunging person you are ! But 
you shouldn't have minded Miss Aldridge so much. 
She's always afraid that if she openly encourages 
a young poet he'll imagine that he's a genius." 

"That's a harmless trick of imagination and it 
doesn't need any encouragement or censure. It's 
a shade better, perhaps, than imagining that you 
are a fool." 

"What an old-young person you are. When you 
talk I feel that I'm listening to an insolent essay. 
I'm not so sure that a poet doesn't need praise. 
It's part of his task to change the polite praise 
around him to an understanding appreciation, and 
that can be very necessary and exciting." 

"To a poet the appreciation of other people 
must be like a glass of lukewarm wine taken after 
work," said Carl. 

"Well, I know that it means a great deal to 
me," said Clara Messenger. "It reassures me that 
Fm speaking to the hearts and minds of the 

113 



BLACKGUARD 

people around me and I'd feel very unimportant 
if at least a few people didn't like my work. One 
can't live in a vacuum, after all." 

"No ? I've done it for five years or so. I think 
that all of us secretly live in vacuums, but we 
use our imaginations to conceal that fact. Words 
were really invented to hide this essential empti- 
ness." 

"You're a massive pessimist! The strangest 
man of twenty-three that I've ever seen! If 
things are so utterly hollow to you, why do you 
live?" 

"In order to persuade myself that I have a 
reason for living — a defiant entertainment in the 
presence of an empty theater. . But it's always 
futile to defend your reason for living. Tell me, 
instead, what do you think of your associate. Miss 
Aldridge?" 

"I really think that she treated you a little 
heartlessly, but at the same time I don't think 
that she meant to," said Clara. "Mary is a woman 
who grew into the habit of hiding herself from 
people because so many of those who looked at 
her youth, at one time, failed to understand it." 

"I can understand that process, though I don't 
believe that it applies in her case. It's a slow 

114 



BLACKGUARD 

and sullen withdrawing from the jibing strangers 
around you — a wounded desire to meet their walls 
of misunderstanding with even harder walls of 
your own. As you grow older, I suppose, the 
sullenness may change to a well-mannered and 
hopeless aloofness. Age softens the attitude and, 
still self-immersed, it seeks the distraction of 
words." 

"What has happened to make you say this?" 
asked Clara, with a mistily maternal impulse. 

"Just now I'm working in a plumber's shop, 
helping the sewers with their sluggish germs of 
future turbulence," said Carl, "and that, of course, 
can play its part in the making of a pessimist. . 
But tell me what you think of my work?" 

"Plumbing or poetry?" 

"Both of them are interwoven." 

"Your poems are stiff and dimly tinted, like a 
row of plaster-of-paris dolls standing on a dusty 
and venerated shelf. Don't you see? You talk 
about twenty times better than you write, and 
I can't understand this peculiar incongruity. 
Perhaps you've been taught that poetry is some- 
thing that must be ethereal and noble at all costs, 
and perhaps you've been inarticulate because the 
rest of you has been at war with this one illusion. 

115 



BLACKGUARD 

I don't feel that you've looked upon poetry as 
a place where you could expr.ess your actual 
thoughts and feelings." 

When a man has been intangibly blind for a 
long time, he usually stumbles at last, accidentally, 
upon an incident or challenge that makes him 
totter on the edge of vision, and in that moment 
it is revealed whether this blindness has been 
innate or not. If he wavers, then his lack of 
sight has been an artificial ailment, and if his 
first reaction after the stumble is one of stubborn 
irritation his tightly-shut eyes are not apt to 
open. Carl felt, without quite being able to shape 
the picture, that he was walking out of a sublime 
bric-a-brac shop, and yet the contact of him, left 
behind in the shop, continued to speak with his 
words. As he discussed poetry with Clara he 
began slowly to feel that he had been a minute 
and prisoned fool, although his words writhed in 
an effort to escape an absolute admission. She 
gave him practical scoldings, also, concerning 
the exact way in which manuscripts should be 
submitted to editors, and he listened with the 
amusement that a man feels when he suddenly 
sees that he has been walking along a street with 
his shoes unlaced. She gave him, again and again, 

ii6 



BLACKGUARD 

her hazily maternal smile in which sensual desires 
selfishly clothed themselves in an ancient and 
soothing dress known as kindness. 

"I do hope that I've helped you," she said. "I'd 
like to feel that I've aided someone to discover 
his real self." 

When he returned to his room he applied a 
match to everything that he had ever written and 
watched the flaming pile of papers with an emo- 
tion in which dread, tenderness, and elation were 
oddly contending against each other. These bits 
of paper, with their symbols of shimmering con- 
fusion, had been decorated by the sweat of his 
body, the brittle despair of his heart, and the 
anger of his soul, and their death brought him 
a helpless and jumbled sadness; but gradually 
another reaction began to possess him. The naked 
quivers of a fighter, crouched in the plan of his 
first blow, centered around his heart, and all of 
the thoughts within his mind gave one shout in 
unison — a meaningless hurrah just before the 
first leap of a creative battle. During the next 
two months he wrote with an insane speed, and 
all of his thoughts and emotions rushed out in 
an irresistible, nondescript mob scene — a French 
Revolution swinging its torches and howls against 

117 



BLACKGUARD 

every repression and constraint within him. Good, 
bad, and mediocre, they rain in the circles of a 
celebrated revenge, and his main purpose was 
expressed in these first four lines of one of his 
poems : 

You have escaped the comedy 

Of swift, pretentious praise and blame, 
And smashed a tavern where they sell 
The harlot's wine that men call fame. 



ii8 



^ARTII 
THE KNIFE 



BLACKGUARD 



TKe Knife 

CHAPTER X. 




ITH Clara Messenger as his guide, 
Carl began to discover that 
another world nestled between the 
dull apartment houses, raucous 
markets, and underworld saloons 
which had confined his body — a 
world of smoother parlors and studios, in which 
stood "poets," painters, sculptors, novelists, critics, 
Little Theater actors, art patrons, students of the 
arts, all leading their little squads of camp follow- 
ers or plodding methodically in the ranks. This 
world was swaggering and overheated, and within 
it hosts of minor people were raising their falter- 
ing or blissfully insincere prayers to a god with 
a thousand faces, whom they called Artistic 
Expression — a god of astigmatic egoism dressed 
in cautious shades of emotion and thought, and 
obsessed with a fear of irony and originality. 
Carl felt like an emancipated hermit suddenly 



121 



BLACKGUARD 

thrown as a sacrifice to an uproar of contending 
philosophies and artistic creeds. His mind, accus- 
tomed to solitary decisions, became bewildered 
amidst the bloodless, tin-sword battle around him 
and he wondered how he could possibly make hig 
own voice heard in the egoistic din. Each man 
assured him that the other man was a fool or 
a charlatan, and he listened to their conflicting 
assumptions of wisdom with a naive dismay. 

"What has lured these people into their atti- 
tudes of isolated and weary superiority?" he 
asked himself, "and if the attitudes are genuine, 
why do these people make a garrulous religion 
of attacking each other ? If they actually believed 
that their convictions were mountain ranges, with 
some snow of immortality soft beneath their feet, 
they would dwell with a more pensive calmness 
upon these substantial protests, instead of assidu- 
ously pelting each other with flecks of mud in 
the valleys." 

With the melancholy idealism of his youth 
Carl had made an emotional sketch in which 
artists and writers were a band of profoundly 
misunderstood martyrs, clinging to each other as 
they accepted the indifference and ridicule of a 

• 

practical world, and he was amazed to find that 

122 



BLACKGUARD I 

almost all of them were far too easy to under- 
stand, and thronged with shudders of words at 
the idea of clinging to one another. Like an 
array of famished and animated housewives, they 
traded gaiety and friendly argument while in 
each other's presence, while in secret they carved 
each other with gossiping exaggerations, three- 
penny sneers, and every hair's-breadth edge of 
derision. Even among their different "schools" 
and cliques he found little fusion — the members 
of each group were plotting to unseat their leader 
because they had commenced to fear that he was 
merely using them as a step-ladder. 

This trivial drama, with malice performing 
menial duties in the service of the old, egoistic 
dream of immortal expression and emotional tall- 
ness, was a new reality to Carl and he surveyed 
it with an alert contempt. 

"Why all of this clownish, papier-mache melo- 
drama, with words playing the part of overworked 
murderers?" he asked himself. "Is it possible 
that faint voices whisper within these people that 
they are not as important and all-seeing as they 
would like to be? Most ludicrous tragedy! The 
noise, alas, must ever continue, since their doubts 
and fears require a constant pounding. Poor, 

123 



BLACKGUARD 

astounding people ! . . . The critic, stroking his 
suave patter above a tea-table: 'Oh, yes, Mr. X. 
is a very sound man, very sound.' 'Mr. C. is indeed 
a great poet, for there's a certain simplicity and 
sincerity in everything he does.' 'Mr. E. is amaz- 
ingly clever and erudite — a most important man.' 
'Mr. B. ? I'm afraid that he's only a minor Baude- 
laire, you know, the old morbid straining after 
originality' — this critic is merely allowing his 
thoughts and emotions to perform their private 
functions upon the publicity of a fanciful pedestal, 
to retch, relieve themselves of fluids and rubbishes, 
and scratch their smarts. It is, in truth, a weird, 
prolonged indecency." 

He meditated upon his own relation to this 
explanation of the belligerent waste of energy 
around him. 

"I am a better egoist than the people around 
me," he said. "I will not be forced to display 
my private organs as often as they. Only an 
absolute egoist can afford to be calm and more 
obscurely naked. If I indulge, at rare intervals, 
a secret grin will gain its reward." 

His thoughts had mounted these conclusions 
as he sat one night in Clara's studio, with his 
legs tucked in above a scarlet cushion. She looked 

124 



BLACKGUARD 

at him with a petulant question on her face. 

"Carl, why are you forever arousing the enmity 
of people?" she asked. 

"Because I detest most of them ; because I like 
straight lines and angles in conduct while they 
prefer curves and circles ; and for a variety of rea- 
sons." 

"But, Carl, you don't need to be so deliberate 
about antagonizing people." 

"I'm not. I'm simply myself most of the time — 
a difficult task, but it can be achieved." 

"Well, everybody is sneering at your latest 
stunt. Why, oh why, did you have to parade down 
Scott street smoking that long Chinese pipe of 
yours, with a red ribbon tied to the stem? Carl, 
sometimes I almost believe that you love to pose !" 

"I ain't guilty, I swear it. When that group of 
my poems came out in the big eastern magazine 
I simply felt that the event demanded an un- 
ashamed celebration. It was like the christening 
of a healthy child and I wanted something 
stronger than whiskey or wine. An odd longing 
that comes to me sometimes. I decided to commit 
the inexplicable crime of becoming immersed in 
a new toy of motion. I fitted a rubber mouth- 
piece over the tip of the pipe and used it half of 

125 



BLACKGUARD 

the time as a cane. I've been told that a crov/d fol- 
lowed me but I didn't turn my head to investi- 
gate." 

"Well, everyone has heard about it and they're 
all calling you a cheap little poseur. And, really, 
I don't know that they're wrong. I never felt so 
angry in my life. You love to attract the attention 
of other people and you'll make every kind of ex- 
cuse rather than admit this fact!" 

He showed an outburst of surface anger. 

"You can act more impulsively in a camp of 
lumber-jacks than before a crowd of so-called 
artists and writers," he said. "The lumber-jacks 
might regard you with a simple amazement, or an 
unrestrained laughter, but at least they'd grant 
you the sincerity of insanity! Since I must 
choose between stupid people I prefer the more 
roughly natural ones." 

"I'm tired of hearing you call everybody a hypo- 
crite," said Clara. "It's just a nice way that you 
have of defending your own actions !" 

He arose and reached for his cap. 

"I'll leave you to this weariness," he said an- 
grily. "It may be possible that, as I walk down 
the street, no one will believe that I'm striding 
along in a highly deliberate manner. The thought 
is pleasant." 

126 



BLACKGUARD 

"Carl, don't be foolish," she said, half-repen- 
tantly, but without answering he walked out of 
the studio. 

This had not been his first quarrel with Clara, 
and the frequency of their collisions, always fol- 
lowed by a skirmish of nervous laughter, made 
him believe that they were both stupidly postpon- 
ing a sure separation. Clara was, in her entire 
essence, a deft Puritan industriously beating the 
back of a frightened Pagan. At certain intervals 
the Pagan arose and knocked the Puritan uncon- 
scious but the latter always gradually revived and 
resumed its dulcet mastership, and Clara liked or 
disliked Carl whenever her inner situation shifted 
in these ways. Carl had grown weary of being 
alternately punched and caressed by her moods. 
He had long since realized that his relations with 
her were merely the playthings of a fluctuating 
emotional response and that neither he nor she 
had the slightest respect for each other's habits 
and minds, and on this evening, as he walked 
down the street after leaving her studio he knew 
that the uncertain pretence of drama had ended. 

He had slowly discovered that almost all of the 
people around him, with their different versions 
of culture and art — those two realities hidden by 

127 



BLACKGUARD 

mincing courtezans of egoism — were distrustful 
of bluntness and gay impulse in conduct and had 
made a word known as "unconventional," in order 
to defend the ordinary fright that governed their 
actions. A venerable contradiction among these 
minor people but one that had held new outlines 
for him. He had also learned that most of these 
people were so accustomed to masquerades that 
they could not believe in the reality of a care- 
lessly naked attitude and usually mistook it for a 
dazzling and ingenious pose. 



128 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER XI. 

Filled with these gloomy realities he walked 
down a roughly bright street where the under- 
world tiptoed furtively between the ranks of semi- 
respectable working-people — a street of gaping, 
sleekly sinister saloons, cabarets, small, thickly 
tawdry shops, and cheap, cofRn-like hotels and 
apartment houses. The hour was early — nine p. 
m. — and he walked slowly, engaged in his favorite 
pastime of watching the shrouded haste of crowds. 
As he passed a moving-picture theater, dotted 
with greasy electric lights and plastered with in- 
anely gaudy posters, he felt a light hand on his 
shoulder. He turned and saw Lucy standing be- 
fore him. The sight gave him a friendly shock, 
for on this evening he was tired of clever hypoc- 
risies and longed for anything that would be crude 
and unassuming. 

"Lucy, have you fallen down from some sky?" 
he asked. 

"No, I just came out of the theater here an' 
saw you walkin' by. Gee, but I'm glad I did ! It's 
been a year now since we've seen each other, 

129 



BLACKGUARD 

hasn't it? An' I never, never thought I'd meet 
you again." 

"Well, what has happened to you, Luce?" he 
asked as they walked down the street together. 

"I'm married to Fred now. I didn't see any- 
thing else to do after you left, and all of my folks 
just pushed me into it. 'Nen besides I was tired of 
workin' in that darn store. Tired." 

"Are you less tired now ? Happy ?" 

"Mm, Fred's an awful nice man in his way an' 
I s'pose I oughta be happy. He really loves me, 
Fred does, an' he don't seem to lose his temper the 
way some men do. , 'Course, he's a little stingy 
with money but then I s'pose he's tryin' to look 
out for the future." 

"Do you love him now. Luce?" 

Her head drooped a little and she was silent for 
a time. 

"I guess it's terrible of me not to love him, 
after all he's done for me, but I just don't. I 
always keep rememberin' all of your funny ways 
an' all the time we was together an' I feel ashamed 
of it too 'cause it's kinda like not bein' true to 
Fred, but I can't help it. There's been times when 
I've managed to forget about you but they don't 
last long enough." 

130 



BLACKGUARD 

He tried to make himself feel like a helpless 
knave as he listened to this simple child of earth 
who longed for the palely inexplicable god before 
whom she had once grovelled in rhythmic speech- 
lessness. He had taken all of her eager silences, 
pardoned by the damp understanding of flesh, and 
bestowed upon her in return nothing save the 
blurred vision of thoughts and emotions which it 
would have been useless for her to understand, and 
the tantalizing fantasy of his embraces. If he 
had stayed with her he would have mutilated, 
kicked, and evaded every longing and purpose of 
his life while she would have revelled in happi- 
ness. Walking down this street were thousands 
of people, trying to embalm a softly sensual hour 
with the fluids and devices of bravely stupid lies, 
and inventing words — "honor," "respectability" — 
to conceal the grotesquely snickering effect of 
their lives. Life was, indeed, an insipid mounte- 
bank! 

"Luce, I ought to feel like a selfish dog, for if I 
did, then at least I could give you a belated 
shoulder to cry upon," he said. "We're different 
persons, that doesn't need to be said, but still I'm 
sorry at times that we parted. I need your stu- 
pidity." 

"Do you still care for me, Carl?" 
131 



BLACKGUARD 

"There are times when I want you again. You 
brought me a delicate dumbness which I could 
change into any kind of speech, with my fingers 
and words. Your simplicity doesn't swagger, or 
point admiringly to itself, and I like that. Just 
now I am surrounded by people who are not dif- 
ferent from you except that they have memorized 
three or four thousand words more, and use them 
with a moderate degree of cunning. Your silences 
are much better." 

"I'm not always silent 'cause I don't understand 
what you say. Sometimes I do understand, but I 
keep quiet 'cause I don't know how to tell you 
about it." 

They turned down a side-street and he looked 
questioningly at her. 

"Aren't you afraid that Fred may see us to- 
gether?" he asked. 

k"I forgot to tell you. He left this afternoon for 
Pittsburg, to see his mother, an' he'll be gone for 
two weeks. I'm all alone now." 

That conversing silence, in which a suggestion 
is so strongly felt that it need not be heard, was 
released from both of them and remained until 
they reached the apartment building in which she 
lived, and stood in the dark hallway. 

132 



BLACKGUARD 

"I don't want to leave you now" — ^her whisper 
was frightened but stubbornly tender. "I don't 
want to. For all I know I may never see you again 
and if I don't I've got to have somethin' that I can 
hold on to. Somethin' that's not as foolish as just 
talkin' words. . . I'm a dreadful girl, I s'pose. I 
must be very wicked. I must be. . . But I don't 
care. Please don't go away." 

They stood in the hallway like two dizzy, bur- 
dened children feeling the advancing shadow of 
an irresistible action and yet waiting for the exact 
moment when all deliberate words would vanish. 
Until their minds were quite free of words 
their limbs could not move. Suddenly they both 
mounted the stairway, hand in hand, as though a 
kindly demon had decided to make playthings of 
their legs. 

When Carl left the apartment building early on 
the following morning and hurried to the suburban 
cigar-store where he now worked half of the day 
as a clerk, his old self-disgust was absent and a 
cleanly wild lightness took his limbs, as if he had 
slept upon the plain sturdiness of a hillside and 
was pacing away with the borrowed vigor. 

"The only time that I dislike earth is when it 
is dressed in urgent mud, adulterated perfumes, 

133 



BLACKGUARD 

strained lies, and repentant fears," he told him- 
self as he walked through the bustling shallow- 
ness of each city street. 

Before leaving Lucy he had promised to return 
on the following night, and when she had wept 
and begged him "not to think that she was a ter- 
ribly bad girl," he had laughed softly and dropped 
his lips upon her tears. 

"You have been yourself, Luce, and since the 
world is always conspiring against such an arbi- 
trary occurrence, you can give yourself a bewil- 
dered congratulation," he told her, gayly. 

Without understanding his words she had felt 
the presence of defiant sounds which had cheered 
her. During the next two weeks, as he remained 
with her each night, he reflected upon the possible 
melodrama that lurked just outside of his visits. 

"If her husband suddenly returns and finds me 
with her he'll want to kill me," he said to himself 
once, as though he welcomed the idea. "He'll feel 
that only my death could heal his injured vanity 
— vermilion medicine! — but, of course, instead of 
admitting that to himself he'll find an accommo- 
dating phrase to hide the actual motive, such as 
'avenging his honor,' 'killing a treacherous 
hound,' 'defending the family,' etc. The news- 

134 



BLACKGUARD 

papers are full of such charming episodes, well 
fortified by words, for without words to obliterate 
his motives man would perish in a day. Melo- 
drama is the only real sincerity that life holds — 
the one surprising directness in a world of false 
and prearranged contortions. Perhaps I could 
ravish my fears and welcome it. I don't know, and 
no one can until it actually arrives." 

But the two weeks died without the blundering 
interruption of drama, and Lucy and Carl parted 
on the last morning with a chuckling stoicism — 
tears and the syllables of laughter are always 
similar — the madcap protest of a last kiss — lips 
and tongues intent upon a future compensation — 
and a final flitting of hands. They had slapped in 
the face a violent shadow known as life and now 
it would take a fancifully piercing revenge. They 
had attained a quality known as bravery — a qual- 
ity that is only fear rising to a moment and effect- 
ively sneering at itself. 



135 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER XII. 

Carl returned to the minor, suavely gesturing 
groups of hypocrites in the city in which he lived, 
and in going back to this "art and literary world" 
he had the feeling of one who had deserted a 
strong valley of desire to enter a stilted room 
filled with imitation orchids, valiantly empty 
words, and malice dressed in clumsy, velvet cos- 
tumes. This reaction was still dominating him 
as he sat, one afternoon, in the office of a magazine 
called "Art and Life," perched upon a window-sill 
and looking down at the black and dwarfed con- 
fusion of a street. 

This office was a gathering place for several 
young writers, each of whom fondled his pet rebel- 
lion against conservative standards, and they 
clustered around the anxiously seraphic face of 
Martha Apperson, the young editor, and seriously 
fought for the treason of her smiles. She was a 
tall, sturdily slender woman with a blithely sym- 
metrical swerve to her body, and the natural pink- 
ness of her face parted into the curves of a lightly 
distressed and virginal doll. Her blue-gray eyes 

136 



BLACKGUARD 

were looking at life with a startled incredulity — 
the gaze of one who has been tempted to regard 
a sometimes merry, but more often vaguely sor- 
rowful picture-puzzle. Life to her was a rapidly 
taunting mixture of glints, hints, undertones, sur- 
face blooms, fleeting tints, portentous shadows 
with little shape to them, broken images, and 
misty heights, and she was forever trying to lure 
them all into a cohesive whole by striding from one 
philosophy and creed to another, adding another 
stride every three or four months. At such times 
she would appear at her office and enthusiastically 
assure her audience that she had finally accomp- 
lished the almost obscene miracle of penetrating 
the depths of human existence. She had started 
her magazine as a strident protest against "the 
people who live conventionally, steeped in a vicious 
comfort that binds their imaginations and ruins 
their legs and arms," and its pages made an awk- 
wardly weird combination of sophomoric revolts, 
longings for "beauty and splendor" — those easily 
bought thrones for the importarice of youth — and 
enraged yelps against traditions and conventions, 
with here and there a more satirically detached 
note from Carl and two other men. Carl knew 
that he wanted her body because it was the only 

137 



BLACKGUARD 

mystery that she seemed to possess and because 
he wondered whether it might not be able to make 
her thoughts less obvious. Her mind was a stumb- 
ling jest to him and her jerkily volatile pretences 
of emotion failed to cleave him. 

He began to turn his eyes impatiently toward 
the office door. Martha had left him in charge, 
promising to return in an hour, but he knew that 
her hours were frequently afternoons as she ca- 
vorted around the city, throwing out miniature 
whirlwinds of appeals for money and attention. 
In a corner of the office stood a huge photograph 
of her latest god — a middle-aged, hawk-faced lec- 
turer from England — that fertile land from 
whence all lecturers flow — a man who had recently 
startled the city by speaking on Oscar Wilde, 
dressed in a black robe and standing in a chamber 
dimly disgraced by candles, incense, and muslin 
poppies. The theatrically savage features of this 
man rested beneath a framed letter from a promi- 
nent writer — one of those abortions in which the 
great man tells a small magazine that he earnestly 
hopes that it will amount to something and 
believes that it can accomplish a great purpose if 
it pursues the ideals which have illuminated his 
work. Carl's eyes sought this framed joke for the 

138 



BLACKGUARD 

hundredth time, since his mood needed such arti- 
ficial humor to make it less aware of itself, and at 
this moment Martha came with the rapid gait 
of one who is returning to vast and uncompleted 
tasks, although her day's labors were at an end. 
This was not a pose but merely a bouncing over- 
abundance of energy. With her was Helen Wilber, , 
a young disciple who scarcely ever left her side. 
Helen had fled from a wealthy family in another 
city and traded her debutante's excuse for the 
more fanciful robe of an ecstatic pilgrim starting 
to ascend from the base of veiled mountains of 
expression. She darted about on errands and in- 
terviews and felt the humble fervors of a novice 
— a tall, heavy girl with a long, soberly undevel- 
oped face and abruptly turned features that were 
garlanded with freckles. She had made a fine art 
of her determination to persuade herself that she 
was masculine, giving it the intense paraphernalia 
of stolen words and gestures, but beneath her 
dubiously mannish attire and desperately swing- 
ing limbs the desires of an average woman were 
feebly questioning the validity of her days. She 
greeted Carl with her usual ringing assumption of 
boyishness. 

"Hello, old top! Been waiting long?" 
139 



BLACKGUARD 

"Not as long as I expected to wait, considering 
Martha's superb indifference to the impudence of 
time. Well, Martha, how have you been insult- 
ing actualities — with your usual crescendoes of 
insanity ?" 

Martha reached for the device of quickly slid- 
ing the tip of her tongue over her upper lip, a 
movement that always gave its opiate to her em- 
barrassment or dismay, and then smiled with a 
softly tragic aloofness. 

"Oh, people weary me so!" she said. "They're so 
impossible most of the time and so sublimely un- 
aware of that fact! I've just come from seeing 
an elderly woman who said that she might be in- 
terested in helping us. She was fat and expen- 
sively gowned and she wanted to know whether 
we wouldn't print a story about the historical old 
families of this city and how they had founded a 
great, commercial and romantic fabric. I told her 
that we were concerned with the restless and 
flaming present, with the artists and thinkers of 
our own time, and not with respectable trades- 
people of the past. Of course I put it as nicely as 
I could but she flew into a temper and said I was 
insulting the people who had built up a great and 
mighty city. . . people are so impossible!" 

140 



BLACKGUARD 

Carl envied the excited flow of her words and 
wished that he could also feverishly felicitate his 
emptiness at that particular moment. 

"I felt like telling her that men who've made 
money and put up ugly buildings aren't necessar- 
ily important enough to talk about," said Helen, 
with a hollow seriousness, "but of course I didn't 
for fear of hurting Mart's chances." 

"I get so tired of wasting words on people who 
lead monotonous lives and can't see the variety 
and beauty within life," said Martha. "When you 
talk to them they treat you as though you were 
a little, misbehaving girl who would soon be 
spanked and put to bed. '0 you'll soon get over all 
of this artistic nonsense,' they say." 

"Ah, they can't see that a defiance like yours, 
Mart, is a fire that only grows stronger when 
someone tries to put it out," said Helen with a 
spontaneously rhetorical worship. 

Carl grinned at the dramatic sincerity with 
which these two women lunged at colossal targets. 

"What's all of this endless stuff about beauty ?" 
he asked. "Beauty, beauty, I'm tired of the label. 
No specific description but just a nice, sonorous 
word. You might exalt your loves and punish 
your aversions with a little more clarity." 

141 



BLACKGUARD 

"0 you can't diagram it as though it were a 
problem in mathematics !" cried Martha. "It's too 
big and mysterious for that. You simply know it 
when you see it. It quickens your breath and 
drops like music upon your soul. It's the thing 
that makes you know that you have a soul — the 
radiant weariness that springs from everything 
that is strong, and lonely, and delicate, and elus- 
ive, and tortured." 

"The adjectives are stirring and the fact that 
they happen to be meaningless is of little impor- 
tance," said Carl. "I like the way in which you 
make love to your emotions." 

Martha gave a grimace of exasperation. 

"You're the most insincere man I know," she 
said. "Some day I'll fall in love with a man who 
can be sincerely brilliant and beautiful and who 
doesn't put his words together carefully, as 
though they were unimportant toys." 

"Such a fate may be exactly what you deserve," 
said Carl, still grinning. 

"Here we've been tramping around all day, see- 
ing stupid people, and you waste Mart's time with 
your old arguments about beauty and words," 
said Helen with a jocose disgust. "I'm getting 
famished. Let's go home." 

142 



BLACKGUARD 

"I forgot to tell you, Carl — I'm having a party 
at the apartment this evening," said Martha. 
"That strange, interesting Russian you met yes- 
terday is coming — Alfred Kone. And Jarvin who 
runs the literary page on the Dispatch. You'll 
come with us now, won't you?" 

"Yes, I'm interested in Kone. He carries a cer- 
tain revolving electricity around with him. His 
words and gestures are abruptly flashing like 
showers of sparks. I'm almost tempted to find out 
where the sparks come from." 

"He's a natural pagan," said Martha with an ad- 
miring sigh. "Don't you love that European air 
about him 1 It's something that you wouldn't like 
if you could put your finger on it — something 
elusive and graceful, and sophisticated." 

"Is it possible that you mean that Kone is intri- 
cately redundant?" said Carl, carelessly. 

"Carl, you always talk in such a careful, un- 
earthly way," said Helen, with a combat of irrita- 
tion and wonder in her voice. 

"With most people talk is a weak, thin wine," 
said Carl. "They drink endless cups of it and at 
last they become mildly intoxicated. I prefer to 
achieve drunkenness with less effort." 

The incongruous love-song of the conversation 

143 



BLACKGUARD 

continued as they departed for the Apperson 
apartment. Carl became morbidly jovial as 
though striving to goad himself into a mood, but 
underneath his v^ords he w^as sad as he side- 
stepped Helen's heavy lunges. "I have never 
actually had youth — that glistening mixture of 
blunders, sighs, cruel laughters, and a pleasant 
sadness that does not cut too deeply," he said to 
himself as he listened to the obviously proud youth 
of the two women. 



144 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER Xril. 

Kone had already arrived at the apartment and 
was waiting on the front porch. His heavy body, 
of medium height, held the arrogant bulge of 
muscles beneath his light grey suit and his pale 
brown face cradled a wraith of bitter alertness — 
a sneer attempting to break through the conceal- 
ing flesh. He had a short flattened nose, thick 
lips, and the eyes of a forced and sprightly demon, 
and the dark abundance of his eyebrows receded 
into a low forehead, which in turn ended in a mass 
of black hair brushed backward. He had come 
to America some six years before this late Au- 
tumn evening; had first worked as a porter in a 
department store; had mastered English with a 
miraculous speed; and was now studying at a 
neighboring university and earning a living by 
teaching Russian to classes of children. In place 
of that violently disguised boredom commonly 
known as a heart he seemed to have an over- 
perfect dynamo that made him a mechanical wild- 
man — there was a sharp, strained persistency in 
all of his movements and the fact that he never 

145 



BLACKGUARD 

deigned to falter in his words and gestures gave 
him an aspect of well-maintained artificiality. He 
threw his vivid grin to Carl. 

"Hah, poet who seems to sleep but is always 
awake — greetings," he called out, in the crisply 
dramatic way in which he usually spoke. " 'De- 
mons lurk in your dimples' — you should have writ- 
ten that line about yourself." 

"Portraits are merely pretexts — secret portraits 
of oneself tortuously extracted from the blankness 
of other people," said Carl. 

"You would like to believe that. The involved 
egoism of youth!" 

"It might be proving your case to answer you," 
said Carl, laughing. 

Kone was one of the few men who could make 
him laugh, since he had the odd habit of laughing 
only in praise and scarcely ever in derision — a cus- 
tom bom in the loneliness of his former years. 
Kone greeted Martha, who came in later, with 
words in which an adroitly raised respect and 
daring sensuality were carefully mixed, but, 
although her surface was flattered by his obei- 
sance, his attentions failed to penetrate her radi- 
ant self-immersion. That would have been a feat 
worthy of century-old preservation. She listened, 

146 



BLACKGUARD 

like a convinced and mysterious referee, while 
Kone and Carl indulged in the precise uselessness 
of argument — a discussion on whether Dostoevsky 
was an insane mystic, drunk with the details of 
reality, or an emotional search-light stopping at 
the edge of the world. The talk led to a question 
of the exact value of originality. 

"So, you are looking for originality," said Kone 
with a metallic mockery in his voice. "A man may 
stand on his head without in any way disturbing 
the universe. Has it not occurred to you that life 
is only a series of reiterations beneath the trans- 
parent gowns of egoism?" 

"I prefer the gowns when they are a little less 
transparent. I might also have to know why a 
man was standing on his head before I could make 
any conjecture concerning the agitation of the 
universe" — an amused respect was in Carl's voice. 
He liked the stilted lunges of Kone. 

Helen appeared in the doorway. 

"Put your daggers aside for a while and come to 
dinner," she said, with the most benign of toler- 
ances. 

After the meal Arthur Jarvin, the critic, arrived 
with a woman named Edith Colson. Jarvin was 
almost tall — one of many "almosts" composing 

147 



BLACKGUARD 

his entirety — and the plump old rose oval of his 
face showed its immense self-satisfaction beneath 
a fluffy mat of dark brown hair. He wore spec- 
tacles and his features bore the petulant satisfac- 
tion of one who has eaten too much for breakfast 
and has not quite decided whether to regret that 
fact or not. Since he held a contempt for the mad 
limitations of time he always fondly lengthened 
the utterance of his many "howevers" and "not- 
withstandings." His friend, Edith Colson, was a 
tall, slender woman who freed a satirical vivacity 
with each of her words, thus making one regret 
the fact that she had nothing to say. One felt 
that to herself she was intrenched upon modest 
but well-guarded hill-tops of emotion ; that, being 
thinly perverse, she had purchased her castles in 
Norway and scorned the more treacherous anima- 
tions of a warmer climate. Her icy effervescences 
— whirls of powdered snows — sometimes subsided 
to a softer note which told you that the dab of 
warmth left within her was reserved for a select 
two or three beings, and that her conversation 
was an elaborate form of repentance. Outwardly 
she offered the effect of a carefully ornamented 
self-protection. The greenish brown length of 
her face accepted the problems of a long straight 

148 



BLACKGUARD 

nose, loosely thin lips, and large black eyes, and 
was topped by a disciplined wealth of brownish 
black hair. 

They sat in a circle on the porch and the conver- 
sation skipped with too much ease between recent 
books, plays, and local celebrities among writers 
and artists. Jarvin, full of the books that had 
come to him for reviewing purposes, compared 
and dissected them with the air of a professor who 
boredly but genially lectures to his special class. 
"This book was passable: of course it couldn't 
come up to so-and-so's book. This other one — well, 
not quite as good as his last novel. A little too 
much of one style, you know. That new French- 
man? Yes, they're raising quite a fuss over him. 
Grim, cruel stuff, but well done. Those books lose 
a lot in the translations, though. That new poet? 
Mm, he's lyrical enough but he just misses inspir- 
ation. The new crop will have to go a long way 
before they can approach Shelley or Wordsworth. 
Have you seen the new Shaw play at the Olympic ? 
After all, Shaw is one of the few men who can 
make you laugh without being vulgar or obvious," 
etc. 

Carl sat in silence and rearranged, in his head, 
the difficult line of a new poem, and to his im- 

149 



BLACKGUARD 

mersion the conversation had become a slightly 
irritating and well-memorized murmur. Endlessly 
he muttered to himself: "your face is stencilled 
with a pensiveness. . . . pensiveness . . . but I 
need another adjective." 

Kone ruffled the dulcet informations of the oth- 
ers now and then with a polite but ironical jest 
that was never too obviously at their expense; 
Martha preserved her eagerly listening silence; 
and Helen sat like a dazed woman at a verbal ban- 
quet, scarcely daring to touch the glittering food 
in front of her. Finally Jarvin found Carl's direc- 
tion with a question that jerked him back to the 
gathering although the exact words eluded him. 

"What were you saying? I haven't been listen- 
ing," said Carl. 

"That's an insulting confession" — Edith Col- 
son's voice snapped like a succession of breaking 
wires. "Aren't you interested in books ?" 

"Well, not in the broad and detailed way in 
which they seem to interest the rest of you," said 
Carl, with the sleepily candid smile which usually 
made another person long to investigate the resil- 
iency of his throat. "Once every five months I 
read one that should be spoken of with great ve- 
hemence and then gradually forgotten, but that's 
a rare occurrence." 

150 



BLACKGUARD 

"O come, that's an easy, superior attitude," said 
Jarvin. "Come down to the valley and join us, 
Mr. Poet!" 

"All right, I'm down. I've passed your hills of 
judicial comment and reached the moonlight on 
the street pavement outside. It suggests a con- 
test. Suppose we all make up a line describing 
the moonlight on the street — the moonlight that 
falls like a quiet silver derision on all philosophies 
— and we'll see which of us is best acquainted with 
the penitent promise of words. I'll begin. "The 
moonlight repressed the grey street, like a phan- 
tom virtue." Only original lines — nothing from 
books." 

"Here I am in the midst of a talk on Bergson, 
and this young poet asks me to make up some 
pretty lines about the moon," said Jarvin, in a 
voice of poised scorn. "I read enough about the 
moon in the flood of mushy poetry that pours into 
my office." 

"You might try to describe it yourself," said 
Carl. "In that way you could provide an excel- 
lent antidote for your disgust. It is, I assure you, 
an important task to rescue the moon from the 
rape of trite words." 

"No, I'll leave that to minor poets," said Jarvin. 

151 



BLACKGUARD 

Carl gave him the malicious grin of one who is 
enjoying a sham battle. 

"If the moon doesn't satisfy you, Mr. Jarvin, 
let's try that whispering prison of trees just out- 
side of this window, or the people who place their 
unsearching feet upon streets every day. Any- 
thing except voluble shop-talk about the latest 
mediocrities with now and then a philosopher or 
scientist thrown in for purposes of repentance and 
caution." 

"Well, our young iconoclast even scorns philos- 
ophy," said Jarvin. "Perhaps it speaks with too 
much thought and authority to suit your fancy. 
It's much easier to let your emotions juggle 
words." 

"Philosophy is a bottle-faced dwarf drowning 
with imposing howls in an ocean that does not see 
him," said Carl, with a languid lack of interest. 
"But philosophy should be read, if only with a 
careful indifference." 

Jarvin threw another rock, with haste, and Carl 
gave him another epigram. Kone, always a res- 
tive audience, interposed. 

"The anarchist, Pearlman, has just come to 
town," he said. "Perhaps all of you know that he 
served twenty years in prison for attempting to 
kill a millionaire. A cruel penance !" 

152 



BLACKGUARD 

"I become rather tired of these anarchists who 
are forever trying and plotting to blow up the 
city-hall," said Edith. "They're neither artists 
nor dull, useful citizens and they serve no purpose 
that I can see. If they imagine that they can 
change the present system of things by shrieking 
and murdering people they ought to be sent to a 
school for the feeble-minded." 

"I'm not so sure that I'd want to see things 
radically changed," said Jarvin. "Of course I 
know that there's a great deal of graft and injus- 
tice everywhere but I'm not sure that I'd care to 
live in a Utopia — wickedness and cruelty are far 
more interesting." 

"The trouble with these anarchists and social- 
ists is that they miss all the beauty in life," said 
Martha. "If you show them a painting or a poem 
they think that you're trying to waste their time, 
unless it contains a social message." 

"I think that it's cruel and useless to try to take 
another man's life," said Helen, earnestly. "I hate 
this fellow, Pearlman!" 

Kone listened to this stagnant symposium of 
viewpoints, with a patient sneer. 

"In Russia we are more accustomed to murder," 
he said. "We have not attained the — what shall I 

153 



BLACKGUARD 

say? — the genial and practical compromises of 
your American democracy. In our country, alas, 
oppression takes off its mask and swings a red 
sword! If you will realize that death does not 
hold for us the mysterious terror that it holds for 
you it may help you to understand Pearlman. He 
came to this country — a young Russian — senti- 
mental, idealistic, crowded with naive longings 
for martyrdom. He wanted to die for the people — 
that grand, massive, mysterious, and yet near and 
real people! When he tried to kill a millionaire, 
who was stubbornly refusing to arbitrate with his 
striking men, Pearlman was choked with a poem 
of liberation that could not be denied. Then the 
icy reality of his next twenty years — condemned 
by both society and the strikers whom he had 
tried to help, surrounded by the rigid leer of iron 
bars; and squeezed into a niche of futility . . 
This crucified Russian does not need your sarcasm, 
my friends." 

The conversation staggered and scampered for 
another hour, with everyone save Carl animatedly 
endeavoring to conceal the fact that he was in no 
way interested in anyone's opinions except his 
own, and at last the party packed away its come- 
dies, irritations, and convictions, and arose from 

154 



BLACKGUARD 

the chairs. There were farewells, with just the 
right compound of gaiety and caution, and the 
gathering separated. 

Carl and Alfred Kone went to the latter's room 
in a dormitory at the university and sat until an 
early hour of the morning, arguing with an in- 
tensity that made their tobacco smoke seem a 
cloud of gunpowder. Kone was that tense incon- 
gruity — an ironical sentimentalist. Within him, 
emotion cajoled thought to a softer brutality and 
thought intruded its staccato, exploring note upon 
the limpid abandon of emotion. A deliberate 
friendship rose between these men, like a translu- 
cent wall through which men can see each other 
without touching, for each one knew that the 
other held a baffling insincerity of imagination 
and was afraid that he might be deftly ridiculed 
if he failed to measure his words. Kone admired 
the nimble restlessness of Carl, a quahty which he 
was compelled mechanically to imitate, while Carl 
liked the explosive way in which Kone evaded him- 
self. Kone was now almost thirty years old but 
his machine-like capering made him seem much 
younger and he bounded through life like a sophis- 
ticated street-urchin, swindling himself with 
fiercely endurable makeshifts in place of dead 

155 



BLACKGUARD 

dreams. His tragedy rested in the fact that he 
was not a creator and the knowledge of this was 
to him a secret poison from which he had to escape 
with many a gale of make-believe laughter. 



156 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER XIV. 

One afternoon, four months after the Apperson 
party, Carl, Kone, and Jenesco, a Roumanian 
painter, sat in the latter's little blending of studio 
and bedroom and looked at a landscape which he 
had just finished. Jenesco's eyes lazily flirted 
with triumph and his small, ruddy face displayed 
the expression of a child throwing a few last, un- 
necessary grains upon a sand-hill. 

"Boys, what do you think of it ?" he asked in a 
tone of confident fatherhood. 

Kone and Carl scanned the painting. It was a 
mother-goose transfiguration, too quick in its ac- 
ceptance of violent colors and bearing a blandly 
forced simplicity. Red, indigo, and orange trees 
were lining both sides of a road, and the trees 
were painted in such a manner that they seemed 
to be kneeling at the roadside. In the distance 
white mountains, resembling the suggestion of 
upturned cups, refused the blue wine of sky, and 
in front of them were fields that looked like 
wrinkled, green tablecloths spread out to dry. In 

iS7 



BLACKGUARD 

the sky one large pink cloud forlornly squandered 
its innocence. 

"Pleasant — pleasant," said Kone. "Not realis- 
tic, and not fantastic. It deceives both of its mis- 
tresses." 

"You don't see what I'm trying to get at," ans- 
wered Jenesco. "I'm trying to make reality turn 
an amiable somersault, as Carl would say. I want 
to avoid the two extremes of painting the usual 
photograph on the one hand and making some- 
thing that no one can understand on the other." 

Carl listened to the seething argument that fol- 
lowed, with the feelings of one who hears an ex- 
quisitely worthless routine of sound. He was 
always amazed at the fact that people could argue 
about art — a word pilfered from that last desper- 
ate undulation with which an ego decorates the 
slavery of mud. Arguments on art to him were 
like the antics of a sign-painter defending the 
precious label which he has painted upon certain 
of the more indiscreet and impossible longings 
within him — a piece of inflexible nonsense. He 
felt that works of art so-called could be described 
and admired with a novel and independently crea- 
tive bow of words, but never defended and ex- 
plained. Books on art were to him a futile and 

158 



BLACKGUARD 

microscopical attempt to inject logic into a deco- 
rative curiosity. As he listened to the wrestling 
sounds of the present argument, words within him 
began to flatter his indifference. 

"While Kone is talking, Jenesco sits, trying to 
frame his reply and paying little heed to Kone's 
words," he said to himself. "If Jenesco hears a 
point that he has not previously considered he will 
make a hasty attempt to shift his answer — a quick 
sword-thrust at the new opponent — and then pro- 
ceed to forget about the matter. Serious argu- 
ments might be of value if they were not windy 
and elaborate. If men could decide to condense 
their views into neat typewritten sheets, carried 
in a coat pocket and distributed among people, 
they could save a great deal of cheated energy." 

"The poet has been sitting here like an amused 
statue," said Kone, after the argument had col- 
lapsed to the usual stand still. "Come, we are 
waiting for you to flay us." 

"Splendid. Another tense battle. Haven't you 
had enough?" said Carl. "I would suggest that 
we hold a debate on whether that spider on the 
wall will crawl into the sunlight near the window, 
or whether it will remain in the shade. In this 
way we can speculate upon how much the laws of 

159 



BLACKGUARD 

chance may alter the spider's conception of the 
universe." 

"Get away with that satirical pose!" cried 
Jenesco. 

Carl smiled without answering, while the others 
derided his self-immersion. Jenesco knew no other 
weapon save an emotional club. He was a machin- 
ist who had taken up painting two years before 
this late winter afternoon and he still kept a little 
shop where he occasionally sold and repaired ma- 
chines. This combination of rough mechanic and 
art-desiring man had given its surface lure to 
Carl's imagination and he had commenced to spend 
most of his time at Jenesco 's home. Short, and 
with the body of a subdued, light-weight prize- 
fighter, Jenesco was a small hurricane of physical 
elations. He had the face of a corrupted cherub 
that had sold its innocence to mental inanities, and 
his mind was a conceited confusion of naive ideas. 
He had been attracted to painting because it 
brought his hands into motion, thus encouraging 
the habit which they could not forget after their 
working hours, and because it taught color and 
flexibility to the hard greys, browns, and blacks 
of his daily toil. He belonged to that band of men 
who spend a lifetime in stubbornly walking down 

i6o 



BLACKGUARD 

a road of artistic effort which does not lead them 
to any distinct surrender. Their imaginations are 
not weak enough to kneel before the drab regulari- 
ties of life and not strong enough to escape from 
the instinctive push of dead men's realities. 

From that afternoon on, Carl began to see more 
of Jenesco and less of Kone. Kone was not a crea- 
tor but merely transposed, with a hungry fire, the 
sentences of other men, and after you solved the 
snapping tricks with which he did this, his ironies 
became thin and lamely transparent. Carl pre- 
ferred the wolfish wit with which Jenesco, an 
ogling Proletarian, tore silk and satin from the 
shrinking flesh of obvious hypocrisies in life. It 
was at least a lurching circus of words — a pulsat- 
ing buffoonery. He scarcely ever saw Martha now, 
since their self-immersions tended to create a 
sterile restraint between them, with words and 
hands playing the part of irrelevant intruders. 
Each of them secretly despised life and its people, 
while giving a pretended attention, but they used 
different methods. Martha fluttered her emotional 
veils, with a breathless coercion, while Carl dodged 
beneath a carnival of grotesquely mated words. 

To amuse the secret loneliness which often be- 
came a boring acid he formed, with Jenesco, that 

i6i 



BLACKGUARD 

hollow melee known as a debating club; called it 
"The Questioners" — prodded by a ghost of humor 
— and exhibited his words in the formal vaude- 
ville-show. The performances occurred at the 
studio of a man named Fyodor Murovitch, a young 
Polish sculptor with a softly melodramatic abund- 
ance of dark brown hair and the face of a 
strangely waspish saint — a saint who was tempt- 
ing himself with malices in order to conquer them. 
One evening Carl sat in this place, drained by the 
empty ritual of responding to noisy and firmly 
convinced people and ogling his nerves with the 
rhythm of pipe smoke. He looked up and saw 
a woman — Olga Ramely — standing beside him. 
His eyes experimented with the eyes of this 
stranger and suddenly contracted. Her eyes 
seemed to be two drops of quivering sweat left 
behind by an emotional crucifixion. They were sen- 
sitive with essences. Greyish-green, larger than a 
dwindled sky, lost in a perilous dream of wakeful- 
ness, holding the phantom glow of incredible tor- 
tures, friendly to mental recklessness, they were 
like a ludicrously clever imitation of his own eyes 
and he trembled in the presence of an inexplicable 
deception. His imagination was becoming a de- 
tached devil much in need of correction. Olga 
Ramely spoke to him. 

162 



BLACKGUARD 

"I've been watching you all evening. The light 
from the candles over your head fell upon your 
yellow hair and put shadows on your face. The 
shadows gave your face a soft excuse and you 
looked half like a sprite and half like a martyr. 
There was an indelicately impish weariness on 
your face. Your hair was like light, and in one 
glistening attempt it tried to reach the weariness, 
but couldn't. I told myself that you were not the 
man that people say you are." 

He made his peace with her eyes, moved by a 
profound embarrassment, and discovered the rest 
of her face, with an abject and yet faintly skep- 
tical desire. The surface flattery of her words had 
been almost without meaning to him, but her voice 
had given him a problem — deep with an alto 
scheme, like a trailing memory of pain, and quiv- 
ering rebelliously under the disciplines of thought. 
He examined her face for an affirmation of the 
voice. Short, dark brown curls encumbered her 
head, like a wig of lost thoughts undulating in an 
effort to capture reality, and her skin was the 
smoothly troubled fusion of white and brown. 
Her nose was of moderate length and curved 
slightly outward, in a subdued question of flesh; 
her lips were small and thin — pliant devices of 

163 



BLACKGUARD 

doubt — and a tight survival of plumpness upon 
her face told of a lucidly cherubic effect that had 
existed before life dropped its hands heavily upon 
her. Her body, verging on tallness, was immersed 
in a last skirmish with youth. 

"What have you heard them say about me?" 
he asked, craving the evasion of words that would 
conceal a unique tumult within him. 

"I've heard people say that you were a thief, 
and a rascal, and a disagreeable idiot, and a 
poseur, and a liar, and an overwhelming egoist." 

"What did you think of this dime-novel version 
of iniquity?" 

"I have been, at times, partial to crude mon- 
sters, but your work was a curious contradiction. 
Why do they hate you ?" 

"Hatred is, of course, fear — fear wildly attempt- 
ing to justify its presence. With most people 
this fear skulks within a harmless parade of 
adjectives, while others are compelled to fall back 
upon their hands. And so people commit actual 
murders while others slay their opponents in con- 
versation. The former is apt to be a little more 
convincing than the latter, though." 

Carl spoke slowly, still correcting the turbu- 
lence of his mind with a plausible display of 

164 



BLACKGUARD 

words, and almost unconscious of what he was 
saying. 

"You've left out a hatred for hypocrisy," said 
Olga, with the same abstracted indifference to 
words and the same instinctive cunning at piecing 
them together. "Some of the people who have 
been flaying you alive walked up to you to-night 
with outstretched hands and congratulations. And 
I felt the emotion of one too tired to have more 
than a twinge of disgust." 

"It requires no effort to be stoical to this joke," 
said Carl, "The masks are too exquisitely futile 
to become interesting unless, indeed, they attain 
a moment of dextrous humor." 

Jenesco and Murovitch, who had been disputing 
in a corner of the studio, walked over and offered 
a belated introduction. 

"Sorry to interrupt love scene, but maybe you 
do not know names of each other," said Murovitch 
in his deliberate, shattered English. "Names tell 
people how much like nothing they are. But 
maybe both of you want to be somebody, in which 
case it is wise to pity you." 

"You have a crudely spontaneous imagination 
— it spies love scenes and vacuums with a truly 
lumbering swiftness," said Carl, annoyed at the 
interruption. 

165 



BLACKGUARD 

Murovitch laughed — he had made a rehgion of 
giving and receiving heavy blows and it made an 
excellent screen for his inner timidities. 

"I like your frankness. It reminds me of a 
heavy negro. It's black and excited," said Olga. 

"Felman's complexion is a little dirty itself," 
said Murovitch, defiling his saint-like face with 
a prearranged grin. 

As Carl and Olga walked to the studio where 
she was living with a woman friend, she told him 
some of the immediate facts of her life, as though 
clearing away an opaquely intruding rubbish. 

"I'm working now as a waitress in a little cafe- 
teria on Winthrop street. Eight in the morning 
to three in the afternoon. Two afternoons a week 
off. These burns on my hands come from the 
hot coffee. On the two afternoons I write poetry. 
My body, you see, passes into a less visible con- 
duct, and thoughts rattle more effectively than 
china cups. Then, on the next morning, I am 
forced to recollect that life is in a continual 
conspiracy to prevent this transformation of 
manners. The plates are once more held up. 
Beans and roast beef refuse to betray the secret." 

They had reached the studio and were seated 
opposite to each other. 

i66 



BLACKGUARD 

"And I work every morning in a tobacco shop," 
said Carl. "Since life works with ravishing incon- 
gruities, everything there should be burned except 
the cigars. Meditating on this, I am able to 
wait more peacefully on the customers. Cringing 
sounds slip from my lips. 'Yes, MacLane will 
win the next fight and the weather is terrible.' 
Strange, twisted little payments of sound. Life 
clinks them in his empty purse." 

"Be romantic — make it the brave bow to an 
indelicate dream," said Olga. 

"A background of colored compensations? 
They, too, are endurable if you don't turn your 
head too often." 

The adventure of stealing from a cautious world 
to an alcove of unguarded expression changed 
their physical desires into brightly unheeded 
guests lurking just outside of their longing to 
talk to each other. When their hands touched at 
last, they laughed at the minute surprise tendered 
by their flesh. They became two secret isolations 
examining a velvet hallucination of fusion. Their 
bodies touched while investigating this enticing 
dream. 



167 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER XV. 

The winter bickered with spring; days gave 
their imaginary separation of time; Olga and 
Carl stooped to the task of conjuring myriads 
of fancifully plausible tongues from their dream 
of perished identities lost in one search. Then 
Olga left with a theater company that was about 
to tour the middle west, having managed to 
secure the small part of a garrulous chambermaid, 
and Carl glided into a riot of writing, waiting for 
the telegram that would send him to join her in 
a far western city where her company would 
stage its last performances. In the meantime, 
he resolved to visit a wealthy uncle who lived in 
the south and wanted to see this "queer nephew 
of mine, who scribbles poetry and doesn't care 
about making money." 

As he sat one morning in an elevated railroad 
coach, with valises at his side, commencing the 
journey to the city in which his uncle lived, his 
mood was glittering and aimless. He danced with 
outlines of Olga's words ; hummed briskly saccha- 
rine tunes ; and trifled with the contours of people 

i68 



BLACKGUARD 

seated near him. Across the aisle a fatly rosy 
man was reading a newspaper and Carl's gaze 
idly struck the front page and absorbed the head- 
lines. In a corner of the page he came to the 

words: "Actress Dies in M ." 

His intuition, springing from that complaint 
vaguely known as metaphysical, changed his skin 
to a subtle frost and laid its squeezing pressure 
upon his eyes. The quick and heavy beat of his 
heart became frantically audible to his ears, like 
a gauntly terrifying horseman riding over him, 
and his mind changed to a loud confusion. He 
jumped across the aisle, tore the paper from the 
gaping man, and read that the woman whom 
he loved had instantly died after an accident. 
Assailed by an oblique rain of black claws, he 
tottered from the car, leaving his valises in the 
aisle. The black claws vanished; his heart and 
mind became extinct; and nothing remained save 
a body turned to ice and guided by instinct. 
Slowly, and with a brittle indecision in each step, 
he walked through the bickering brightness of one 
street after another, hearing and seeing nothing. 
He reached the bold flatness of the stone apart- 
ment building; read the delayed telegram held 
out by his mother, with the barest shiver of 
returning life, and dropped upon his bed. 

169 



BLACKGUARD 

Sunlight stood within the small room, like an 
emaciated patriarch entering through grey shades. 
Sunlight ignored the glossy chastities of furniture 
and dull yellow walls, and looked intently at the 
bed standing in one corner of the room. A long 
human collapse in black clothes stuck to the white 
bedspread. A blotch of blonde hair rested stilly 
in the weak light and hinted of a face. The body 
shook now and then as though an inquisitively 
alien hand were investigating its lifelessness. 
Then sobs pushed their way from the hidden face 
— an irregular orgy of distorted lyricism. It was 
as though a martyr were licking up the blood 
on his wounds and spitting it out in long gurgles 
of lunatic delight. The sobs were separated by 
rattling pauses that reminded one of a still living 
skeleton endlessly wrestling with death. The 
skeleton and the martyr sometimes felicitated each 
other upon their endurance, and short silences, 
like uneasy lies, glided from the hidden face. 
Then the bleeding turmoil once more streamed 
upon the air of the room, almost extinguishing 
the dim sunlight. 

A peculiar species of happiness lurked beneath 
the weeping. Grief, hating itself, found a revenge- 
ful pleasure in attempting to tear and exhaust 

170 



BLACKGUARD 

itself into death. Sometimes the turmoil sub- 
sided to a light and sibilant fight for breath. 
The animal noise departed then and a small soul, 
much lighter than a phantom sin, plucked unavail- 
ingly at the mysterious spear that had suddenly 
coerced its breast. . . . The dark words of 
twilight finally entered the room, making an 
opera of the marred lyricism that esca'ped from 
the hidden face on the bed. Then night pardoned 
the deficiencies of the room and corrected them 
with moonlight, creating a tragic and chaste 
boudoir. Carl Felman felt emptied of all sound, 
and a mad craving for motion stabbed his limbs. 
He wanted to rush endlessly into space, barely 
supported by the breathless consolation of run- 
ning after something that could never be caught. 
This would also be of great value to his heart, 
which was a stiffly smirking acrobat who has 
broken his legs but still strives to continue the 
act. 

He leaped from the bed and seized his cap. 
His mother, who had been entering his room at 
intervals and vainly questioning him, stopped him 
at the outer doorway. 

"Carl, where are you going?" she cried, in a 
sharply fearful voice. 

171 



BLACKGUARD 

With a hugely mechanical effort he managed 
to twist low sounds from his useless lips. 

"Just — for a — walk — back — soon." 

Without heeding her protests and questions, he 
fled down to the street. Human beings had disap- 
peared, but he could see faces indented on the 
fronts of houses. One had a look of mangled 
suffering; another was studiously wicked, like a 
learned burglar; and a third bore the pathetic 
leer of a venturesome housemaid. He picked up 
these details, glanced at them a moment, and then 
threw them aside as though they were scandals 
from another planet. He passed into a region of 
three-story rooming-houses — flat wretches holding 
an air of patient cowardice. People surreptitiously 
filtered from the houses and walked down the 
street with Carl — chorus girls with plump, sneaky 
faces, underworld hoodlums with an air of wanly 
etched bravado, ponderously rollicking servant 
girls, clerks with the faces of genial mice, and 
meekly dazed old men stumping to their dish- 
washing jobs. To Carl they were also hurrying 
after something that had vanished and cajoling 
their mingled emptiness and pain with swift 
motion. Now and then he waved an arm to them 
in greeting, while an unearthly smile dug into 

172 



BLACKGUARD 

his face. His gesture, when observed, was taken 
for an intended blow and he left attitudes of fear 
and pugnacity behind him. 

He crossed a bridge above a narrowly turbid 
river. The oily lights and toiling tug-boats were 
to him an inexplicable affront. Their stillness and 
slow motion insulted his passion for speed and 
with the spite of a child he looked down at his 
feet for a stone to throw at them. Finding a 
pavement block, he cast it into the river and 
rushed along, feeling for a second an exquisite 
relief. He passed into a crowded theater and 
business section. The strained melee of lights and 
noises became an intensely sympathetic audience, 
urging on his race, and the faces and forms of 
human beings met in an applauding confusion. 
With the cunning of a blind animal, he darted 
through their ranks and avoided collisions. 
Finally he reached another apartment-house 
region — large brick boxes without a vestige of 
expression. "The faces are gone!" he cried, with 
a gasping incredulity, as though inanimate things 
had alone become real to him. Moonlight, unable 
to fathom their petty baldness, clung to them 
with an attitude of limpid disgust. Thickly con- 
tented families, mild and tightly garnished, issued 

173 



BLACKGUARD 

from the doorways, trundling to some moving- 
picture show or ice-cream palace. An aspect of 
well-washed and hollow serenity protested against 
Carl's direct flight. Wrapped by this time in a 
warmly merciful daze, he did not detect the drably 
swaying counterfeit of happiness that would have 
awakened within him a maniacal response. 

He sped down street after street like an 
inhuman hunter, and came to rows of wooden 
houses separated by large fields and blackguarded 
by the smoke of nearby factories and mills. An 
attitude of mildewed supplication — a beggar rising 
from ferns and mud — lifted itself over the scene. 
Rushing along, he plunged into the open country, 
where wild flowers, ditches, and fields of corn 
pungently conversed with moonlight in a language 
too simple and formless for human ears to catch. 
But Carl's ears had become inhuman, and he 
started a loud talk with the growing objects 
around him, revelling in their sympathy and 
advice. By this time his long, half -running walk 
had weakened him and he began to lurch over 
the soft earth of the road like a crushed and 
fantastic drunkard. 

The ingenuous brilliance of a cloudless morning 
174 



BLACKGUARD 

stood hugely over the green fields and yellowish 
brown roads and an air of alert innocence went 
exploring between the flowers and ditches. Har- 
riet Radler walked slowly down the country road 
on her way to the schoolhouse where she ruled 
a little band of demons, drudges, minor poets, and 
clowns. She lingered along the roadside, some- 
times stooping to tear a tiger lily from the shallow 
ditch. Slender and short, a pliant virginity twined 
itself around her body. Her young face, pink and 
barely whipped, had been marked by a tentative 
sorrow and was hungering for the actual battle. 
Her black and white clothes lazily flirted with 
imps of morning air and were encouraged by her 
eyes. 

Looking down at the ditch, she saw the half- 
concealed form of a man lying in the water, with 
his head and arms resting upon the bank. A trag- 
edy of dry mud stamped its grey mosaic over his 
face. His blonde hair drooped with dirt like a 
trampled sunflower. The Pierrot-like hesitation of 
his features peeped beneath the dirt — a still and 
frightened ritual. With the horror of one who 
believes that she is beholding a dead man, Harriet 
knelt beside the figure and shook its head, her 
face turned away and her eyes tightly closed. 

175 



BLACKGUARD 

Then she heard a mingled rustle and splash and 
saw that the man was rising to his feet. He stood 
with bent knees over the mud of the ditch, his 
black clothes garlanded with slime, his face twitch- 
ing into life beneath its stiff mask of earth. With 
a squeal of fright she scrambled to her feet and 
ran down the road. The man in the ditch, Carl 
Felman, felt that something was still evading him 
and once more experienced the hunter's frenzy 
that had tumbled him over the night. Gripped by 
a superhuman agility, he transcended his stiff 
joints and pursued her down the road. He caught 
her, his hands dropping upon her shoulders and 
whirling her around. She faced him with uplifted 
arms, a turbulence of fright and curiosity swiftly 
toying with her eyes and mouth. He lowered his 
hands and stood limply before her. 

"Do you know what grief is?" he asked, in an 
almost indistinct voice. 

She stared and did not answer. 

"Do you know what grief is?" he asked, in a 
softly clear voice. 

A look of loose wonder came to her face. 

"Do you know what grief is?" he asked, in an 
almost loud voice. 

A darkly smiling contemplation revised the lines 
of her face. 

176 



BLACKGUARD 

"Yes," she whispered. 

Without another word they both walked down 
the country road together. 



177 



PART III 
INSTIGATION 



BLACKGUARD 



Instillation 



CHAPTER XVI. 




HE train in which Carl was riding 
rolled slowly through the outskirts 
of a southern city and he looked 
out at the rows of negro cottages 
and hovels that plaintively cringed 
underneath the wide foliage of 
willow and magnolia trees. Most of the cottages 
were unpainted and grey with the impersonally 
chaste kiss of time, while the hovels were mere 
flimsy boxes covered with black tar paper. Sun- 
flowers and morning glories stood amid the weeds 
and twined about the slanting fences like gaudy 
virgins dismayed at their sight of a lewdly dis- 
ordered room and appealing to the sunlight for 
protection. Negro women in faded sunbonnets 
and wrappers could sometimes be seen shuffling 
down the thickly dusty roads and negro children, 
in weird incoherences of tattered clothes, tumbled 
around the humble doorsteps. The children were 



i8i 



BLACKGUARD 

little black madmen unconsciously dodging a huge 
fist that was concealed beneath the scene. The 
dust of a late August morning had dropped upon 
all things, sifting its listless sadness into everj^ 
crevice and crack, and even the fierce sun could 
not dispel this invasion. 

Every shade of this scene was an accurately 
friendly answer to Carl's mood and he squandered 
the brooding light of his eyes upon all of the 
visual details outside of the train window. The 
mask of careless bitterness upon his face said 
its hello to the cowering and sinister apathy of 
the houses and people, and viciouslj' he longed to 
leap out of the window and join the unashamed 
animal rites w^hich these hovels and human beings 
were parading. Here an alien race was standing 
amid clouds of evil-smelling squalor and staring at 
its broken longings and dreams — staring \\'ith a 
wild hopelessness. This race had lost its own civil- 
ization and was clumsilj' imitating that of the 
white man, not because of any innate desire, but 
because it had been forced to blend into its sur- 
roundings or perish, and Carl felt that all of his 
life had also been an animated lie of flesh and 
speech, devised to aid him in escaping from the 
contemptuous eyes that vastly hemmed him in. 

182 



BLACKGUARD 

And now, with the feelings of a man who had 
neatly murdered himself, he was planning to turn 
the knives of his thoughts and emotions upon 
other people, not for revenge, but because the 
marred ghost of himself harshly desired to con- 
vince itself that it was still alive. If this ghost 
had yielded to the subterfuges of kindness and 
gentleness it would have become too much aware 
of its own thin remoteness from life, and cruelty 
alone could induce it to believe that it was still 
welded to the actualities of existence. 

As Carl sat at the window he could often hear 
the grotesquely quavering, boldly mellow laughter 
of negro men trudging to their work, but these 
sounds did not express humor to him. They held 
the strong effort of men to flee from tormenting 
longings and the numbly vicious rebuke of pov- 
erty, and the sounds which these men released 
merely symbolized the long strides of their fancied 
escape. Laughter can be merely the explosive 
sound with which human beings seek to demolish 
each other — the indirect weapon of self-hatred. 
Carl laughed with a strained loudness, throwing 
a magnified echo to the negroes on the dusty roads 
outside, and a drowsily plump, middle-aged woman 
in an opposite seat opened her mouth widely and 

183 



BLACKGUARD 

huddled into a corner, fearing that she might be 
attacked by a maniac. He gave her a glance and 
feasted upon her fear, for her shrinking attitude 
was falsely and deliciously persuading the ghost 
of himself that it still held a potency over other 
people. 

Sometimes a song crazily drifted to Carl's ears 
from one of the negro cottages — a song that was 
weighted with loosely undulating sadness — and he 
listened with a stern greediness. Music is a huge, 
treacherous sound made by thoughts and emotions 
to console them for their feeling of minute mor- 
tality, and after it has given them its dream of 
permanent size it disappears, slaying the illusion 
with silence. Now it brought a delusion of sub- 
stantiality to the ghost within the mould of Carl's 
flesh and he listened in a trance of gratitude. Lost 
in the obliterations of his grief, he felt infinitely 
nearer to these abject, musical negroes outside 
than to the artificially silent, stiffly satisfied white 
people with whom he was riding. Grief, which 
is an insane tyrant among emotions, has an effort- 
less way of crossing all boundaries and walls, but 
it does not reveal any hidden oneness between 
human beings. Grief places men and women in a 
vacuum of renunciation, or shows them that they 

184 



BLACKGUARD 

have little connection with the people around 
them and that they have been enduring an alien 
camp. Ruled by this latter discovery, Carl looked 
with an undisguised hatred at the formal, com- 
placent white people in the railway coach and 
felt that he was deeply related to the negroes 
outside. 

Almost three months had passed since the invis- 
ible knife had swung into the middle of his being, 
and since he had staggered across the agitated 
sincerity of night to the peaceful compassion of 
the young school teacher. Now and then he 
remembered their silent walk down the sturdy 
brightness of the country road — a silence which 
had been a soft wreath ironically thrown upon 
the weakness of words — and the troubled way in 
which she had helped him brush his clothes and 
wash his face, and the stumbling simplicity of 
the words with which she had tried to comfort 
him. Although he had been a stranger to her, she 
had thrown aside that distrust which is born of 
sensual pride and a cheaply purchased worldly 
wisdom, influenced by the helpless directness of 
his demeanor and by the supple humility which a 
grief of her own had once left within her. The 
force of her fearlessness had fallen upon him like 

185 



BLACKGUARD 

the sweeping touch of another world, and in his 
daze he had actually believed that she had been 
sent by the woman whom he had lost as an alert 
messenger striving to teach him how to hold his 
ghostlike shoulders up beneath a future burden. 
If she had held a human aspect to him he would 
have hated and reviled her, for then she would 
have been merely an atom in the vast, turbid 
reality that had slowly lured him to an imbecilic 
torture. He accepted the curves of her body as 
an unearthly visitation and possessed them as one 
who passes through a fragile ritual. But after 
his departure from her, as he once more walked 
down the shaggy, solid country road, she had 
tiptoed away from him with a spectral quickness, 
and the clamor of a world had once more attacked 
him, like the scattered falsehoods of an idiot. 
The rustle of trees had become an insignificant 
whisper of defeat ; the songs of birds had changed 
to the shrill vacuities with which a monster enter- 
tained himself; the colored groups of flowers had 
become the pitiful remains of a violated carnival; 
the earth beneath his feet had altered to the stolid 
aloofness of a giant moron; and the sunlight had 
seemed to be a theatrical accident. 

When he had reached the city, with its orderly 

i86 



BLACKGUARD 

ranks of houses and factories and its dully precise 
pavements, the scene had been to him a cunning 
mirage made by dying people to suppress their 
realization of the advancing destruction. The 
people on the streets had held the complicated 
glee and perplexity of an insane slave trying to 
extract an imaginary importance from his bond- 
age. He had longed to jump at their throats 
and silence the feverish lie that was reviling the 
truthful stare of his eyes and only his physical 
exhaustion had prevented him from doing this. 
Grief is a spontaneous welcome sent to the insan- 
ity that lurks within all human beings, and its 
invitation greets a responsive strength or a fright- 
ened weakness of imagination, according to the 
man or woman who receives it. 

And so he had plodded back to his home, 
carrying within him a numb confusion that was 
sometimes disrupted by vicious impulses, and 
forcing the ghost of himself into a motion which 
it could not understand. He had tried to answer 
the angry and uneasy questions of his parents 
with plausible lies at his own expense. Yes, he 
had met someone who had given him bad news 
and in a fit of temper he had rushed from the 
railroad station and deserted his valises. What 

187 



BLACKGUARD 

was in the telegram? Oh, just a message from 
a friend. Where had he been for the past two 
days ? Why, he had gone on a spree and had slept 
off his drunkenness at the house of a friend. 
Shouldn't he be locked in an insane asylum ? Yes, 
but life had already granted him that favor. With 
a glib tongue he tried to serenade the barren 
comedy of improbabilities to which he had 
returned, but he scarcely heard the words that 
he was uttering, and as he wrung them from the 
empty ghost that was within him he longed to 
strike his parents in the face and feed greedily 
upon their rage and astonishment, in an effort 
to convince himself that he was still substantially 
powerful, still able to assert his reality by injuring 
the people around him. With an act of this kind 
he could destroy the indifferent fantasy of life 
and change it to a tangible and active opponent. 
The man standing before him — his father — was 
merely an irritating puppet whose lack of under- 
standing moved jerkily, governed by the hands 
of an ignorant dream. 

With a cry of hatred, Carl struck his father 
in the face and watched him reel back against 
the wall of the dining-room with a feeling of warm 
triumph. He struck him again and revelled in 

i88 



BLACKGUARD 

the blood that decorated the man's lips. His 
mother shrieked with fear; his father returned 
the blows; and the two men fought around the 
room, overturning chairs and vases. Several 
neighbors, brought by the cries of his mother, 
rushed in and overpowered him. Together with 
his father, they held him down while someone 
summoned a patrol wagon, and he was taken to 
a cell in a police station. As he sat in the flatly 
smelling semi-gloom of the cell he caressed, with 
an overpowering fondness, the blood that had 
stiffened upon parts of his face, for it mutely 
testified that he had conquered the remote lie 
around him and altered it to a satisfying enemy. 
He had persuaded himself that he was still alive, 
and the blows which he had given his father had 
been the first proof of this illusory emancipation. 
Throughout the night, as he shifted upon the iron 
shelf that was his bed, he muttered to himself 
at regular intervals, "I am alive, I am still alive," 
as though he were trying to preserve a triumphant 
dream that would soon disappear, and the grief 
within him rocked to and fro upon the words, 
using them as a cradle. 

But when the morning dodged shamefacedly 
into his cell, bringing with it a faint retinue of 

189 



BLACKGUARD 

city sounds, the annoying fantasy returned with 
full vigor, and the ghost within him stealthily 
assumed possession of his flesh. Once more he 
was a thinly wounded spectator, filled with an 
impotent hatred at the melee about him and 
longing for the lusty release of physical motion. 
Two small boys, lying upon their stomachs, peered 
through the grating of his cell window, which 
stood on a level with the sidewalk outside, and 
jibed at him. He cursed them incessantly, with 
an anger that was not directed at them, but at 
the meaningless tensions of their voices, and with 
the tumult of his own voice he vainly strove to 
shake the wraith within him to firmer outlines. 

As he stood before the magistrate a few hours 
later, an incredulous sneer was on his face, as 
though the man at the desk above him were a 
pompous, talkative scarecrow, and with a stubborn 
silence he confronted the questions that were 
thrown at him. In a low, hesitating voice his 
father declared that he feared that his son had 
become insane, and the judge ordered an exami- 
nation by one of the city physicians. Carl was 
returned to his cell, after his parents had pelted 
him with half-angry and half-bewildered sentences 
in an ante-room of the court, and as he sat again 

190 



BLACKGUARD 

in his cell, surveying the rigid jeer of the iron 
bars, his hatred began to listen to the advice 
of cunning — a cunning pilfered from the wilted 
depths of his despair. He began to see that 
physical blows and silence were crude and inef- 
fective weapons in his attack upon the insulting 
commotion of life and that, if he desired to injure 
human beings so that both he and they might 
become real for a moment, he must use more 
indirect and ingenious methods. 

When the city physician, a tall, briskly-balanced 
man with no imagination, questioned him in his 
cell, he became a blandly appealing and submissive 
actor. 

"Yes, doctor, I had a nervous breakdown from 
overstudy, you know, and for a time I'm afraid 
that I lost my reason. They tell me that I struck 
my father and this has horrified me, as I haven't 
the slightest recollection of what I did. But I've 
gathered myself together now and I can promise 
you that I'll never lose control of myself again — 
never! And I'm awfully sorry for what I did. I 
can assure you of the sincerity of my repentance." 

The physician was putty in Carl's adroit hands 
— this composed young man with an intelligent, 

191 



BLACKGUARD 

contrite speech must, of course, be quite sane. 
Carl, as he spoke to this man, slowly formed an 
evil grin beneath the cool mask of his face, and 
he relished the task of showering upon this man 
earnest platitudes, smooth imitations of that lim- 
ited sleep known as "common sense," and words 
of self-reproach, because this trickery brought 
back to him his old sense of power over his sur- 
roundings and offered a subtle outlet for his hatred 
of life. The physician ended by shaking his hand 
with a genial respect and when evening came he 
was given his freedom. 

He returned to his home, repeating the soft 
treachery of his words while his fists still longed 
to lunge out at the faces in front of him, but the 
shrewdness of a ghost determined to regain a 
semblance of life by cleverly deceiving and pun- 
ishing the people around it came to his rescue 
and controlled his body. His parents had felt 
wrathful at the presence of something which they 
could only dimly see and which he made no effort 
to clarify, but life had taught them to make a 
god of submission, and a heavy tenderness mingled 
with an alert fear crept into their posture toward 
him. He trudged back to the loquacious, coarse 
emptiness of his clerkship at the tobacco shop 
and shunned the world that he had previously 

192 



BLACKGUARD 

inhabited, for he feared that if he met anyone 
whom he knew he would feel again the irresistible 
inclination to interrogate their throats, and he 
knew that these impulses would only lead to his 
own destruction. When he accidentally met some 
acquaintance on the street, he would hurry on 
like a nervous criminal, ignoring the other's 
greetings. 

He prowled about the city, still in search of a 
violent dream that could offer its delusion of 
reckless strength to the mutilated spirit whose 
complaints drove him on. He ran to the soiled 
raptures of prostitutes and sensually oppressed, 
adventurous girls who could be picked up on the 
streets, and gave them a twisted symphony of 
blows, curses, whispered insinuations, lies, while 
he revelled in the illusion of cruelty that was 
lending a false reality to the thin futilities of 
his mind and flesh. With a mixture of brutality 
and delicately simulated caresses, he overawed 
these women and they felt themselves in the 
presence of a charming, abstracted fiend, whose 
kaleidoscopic insincerity only made them long to 
change it to a gesture of actual love. He sought 
the company of thieves and hoodlums, and at first 
they distrusted him because his restrained man- 

193 



BLACKGUARD 

ners and gently removed look were not proper 
credentials, but when they saw how eager he was 
for the impact of fists, and how he could take a 
blow and rise with a grin of stunned delight, they 
accepted him as an eccentric brother. They did 
not know that these actions were not born of 
courage, but were caused by a gigantic longing 
for physical pain — pain that could shock his numb 
spirit into a feeling of sharply hideous communion 
with an actual world. 

But finally this life began to weary him because 
it could not reach the flimsy loneliness that stood 
within him. He carried within him at all times 
an audience of ghostly thoughts and emotions, 
and they were at last becoming bored with the 
stolen melodrama. He determined to practice an 
economy in movements and words, and he walked 
alone at night and on streets where the possibility 
of meeting someone who knew him would be 
distant. He watched the syncopated gliding of 
people with the irritation of a stranger. The men 
and women who drifted or bobbed along were 
cardboard mannikins to him and he vainly tried 
to give life to their flatness and lack of color. 
Sometimes he would pause and touch his arm and 
face, wondering at the odd inadequateness of their 

194 



BLACKGUARD 

presence. Olga had become a living but invisible 
being who was constantly groping for him, with 
eyes unused to the outlines of earth, and some- 
times finding his shoulder in a fleeting and 
accidental way. When this happened, he would 
turn around abruptly and berate his inability to 
extract her form from the concealing air. At such 
times he would often speak to her. "Olga . . . 
Olga . . . what is this unsought blindness that has 
come to both of us?" he would cry into the night 
air of a street. "A cruel chicanery ... a blurred 
and simple pause ... a little fantasy within a huge 
one? Am I a coward rolling in the mud that 
stretches before a vast gate? Life seems a fan- 
tastic conspiracy, panting and rattling in its 
efforts to hide the emptiness beneath it . . . 
Olga . . . take me to your burnished hermitage 
... I am tired." 

He would walk on, trying to imagine what her 
answer had been, and winning an elusive and 
deliberately wrought consolation that stayed for 
an hour and then gradually departed. His life 
had settled into the recurrence of these reactions, 
when a second invitation arrived from his wealthy 
uncle in the southern city, and he had accepted 
merely because he wanted a new arena for his 

195 



BLACKGUARD 

struggle with a discredited reality — fresher tar- 
gets and a change in the illusion's surface. 

And now he was seated in the train that slowly- 
rolled through the outskirts of a southern city 
and giving his eyes to the squalid negro section 
that unfurled before him. . . . 



196 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER XVII. 

He turned from the window and strove to place 
an expression of close-lipped serenity on his face, 
for the train had almost reached the station. He 
had not seen his uncle for years and he played 
with dim memories of the man's appearance. 
When he walked down the station platform he 
found that his uncle, Doctor Max Edleman, was 
waiting just outside of the iron gates. Doctor 
Edleman was a man of sixty years, sturdily 
rotund, with a tall body that was beginning to 
be disgraced by its expanding paunch. His head 
was unusually large and ruled by small blue eyes 
and the sharply turned breadth of a nose. His 
great, thick lips were tightly withdrawn to an out- 
line of benign patience and his florid face ridiculed 
the trace of wrinkles that had flicked it. His 
greyish blonde hair was still fairly abundant, and 
all of him suggested a man who was uniquely 
intact because he had scarcely ever allowed life 
to clutch him familiarly. Since he was an Alsatian 
Jew, he kissed Carl carefully on both cheeks, and 

197 



BLACKGUARD 

this annoyed Carl, not from the usual masculine 
reasons, but because he felt that this was a jocose 
insult from a fantasy that despised him, but he 
submitted with a flitting grimace. 

He took Carl to an automobile and after they 
had been driven away he smothered him with 
questions. 

"Your dear mother tells me that you have been 
acting queerly of late," he said, in the heavily- 
hieasured way of speaking he had. "You have 
been refusing to speak to anyone and staying 
away from home — bringing worry to your dear 
mother. It seems to me that you have given 
enough care and trouble to your parents, and 
that it's about time that you acted like a normal 
man. I understand that you have been dissipating 
and going with dissolute people. You are twenty- 
five now and there is no longer any excuse for 
this wildness. What have you to say for your- 
self?" 

"Don't ask me to explain things that you 
couldn't understand," said Carl, returning to act 
in the falsely unpleasant play. "I have had a 
great grief and I'm trying in my own way to 
make it a friend of mine. If I tell you that your 
questions bring back wounds, I am sure that you 
will not desire to hurt me." 

198 



BLACKGUARD 

He gave his uncle words that would appease 
and disarm him, while at the same time evading 
his queries, and this game gave him a smooth 
semblance of life. 

"So-o, so-o, I have no desire to penetrate your 
secrets," said Dr. Edleman, in a kindly voice that 
feebly strove to comprehend. "I am simply advis- 
ing you to pull yourself together. Show some 
consideration for the people around you." 

He continued to offer the benevolent adultera- 
tions of his advice, and as Carl listened he 
suddenly thought of a high-school teacher who 
had once rebuked him for bringing to class a 
theme entitled "Women Who Walk the Streets," 
and with a vaporously swinging amusement in 
his heart he almost felt human again. This 
fantasy could hold a blustering smirk now and 
then — its only extenuation. But the nearness 
vanished as his uncle's voice became a swindling 
monotone, angering him with its formal pretense 
of life. Carefully, and with a ghostlike insincerity 
that bribed his voice with lightness, he gave 
words that could hold this man at arm's length. 
The strain of adapting his words to the intelli- 
gence of the man beside him brought him a closer 
relation to the bickering phantasmagoria of men 

199 



BLACKGUARD 

and their motives without in any way summoning 
his own thoughts and emotions. Dr. Edleman 
felt that his nephew was skillfully attempting 
to defend a selfish past and bringing into the 
service of this motive a graceful keenness of 
mind, but beyond this point Carl's words were 
unable to affect him. 

"I have always admired your brilliancy," he 
said, "and I only wish that you would use it in 
the right way. A young man must pay some 
attention to the desires and opinions of older 
people. It will be a glad day for me when I see 
that you are using your talents to bring happiness 
to other people. A glad day." 

Carl gave a sigh to the grave dullness that 
marched forth in his uncle's voice and meditated 
upon the curious differences in sound with which 
people petted their limitations and discretions. 
These differences were known as words, and when 
they pleased a great number of people they were 
hailed as symbols of genius or power, but Carl 
could see no distinction between any of them. 
Like a horde of tired servants, they pranced to 
the prides and hatreds of men and then returned 
to their common grave, and only their exact 

200 



BLACKGUARD 

arrangement gave them a flitting assumption of 
life. "What is the difference between this old 
man and myself? Several keys to false doors of 
thought and emotion, misplaced or lost in his 
youth and found in mine." Through reiterating 
these plausibilities he tried to give bulk and 
texture to the fantasy of existence. 

The automobile stopped before the Edleman 
home, which was a large two-story structure — a 
partial reproduction of the Colonial period modi- 
fied to conform to the more exuberant inclinations 
of an Alsatian Jew. Four broad, high wooden 
pillars, painted white, rose over a wide veranda 
and ended in a slanting roof of black slate, and 
the walls were of red brick courted by an abund- 
ance of vines. A large garden, with tons of fruit 
trees and brilliant episodes of flowers, surrounded 
the house and was enclosed by a level hedge of 
shrubs and a low iron fence. An impression of 
dreamlessly cluttered luxury, verging in spots 
upon bland somnolence, proclaimed the emptjr 
heart of the place, but it was almost a distinct 
flattery to Carl, who had grown tired of aggressive 
angles and plain surfaces. Here, at least, the 
mirage held a sleek flirtation with bunches of 
color and burdened curves. 

20I 



BLACKGUARD 

His aunt Bertha, a short, stout woman in a 
gown of brown taffeta and white lace, welcomed 
him in a babbling and languid fashion and showed 
him to his room. She was a softly shallow woman 
whose major interests were card parties and the 
lingering intricacies of gossip. The flabby round- 
ness of her face was in the last grip of middle 
age and her mind was as scanty and precisely 
glistening as the greyish-brown hair that slanted 
back from her low forehead. After the dinner, 
she hurried off to the mildly mercenary rites of 
a bridge whist party and Carl was left to wander 
idly around the garden. He sat on the grass 
beneath a persimmon tree and played with lazy, 
cruel thoughts in which he slapped a man's face 
or tortured a woman's cheek, still moved by his 
old mania to profane the empty dream which 
life had become to him, forcing it into a vigorous 
duplicate of reality. 

The bright afternoon, with its myriads of 
shrilly clear and hissing sounds, was like a 
troubled falsetto rapture and he weakly fought 
to bring it nearer to his senses. As he sat beneath 
the tree he resolved to give his mind some labor 
with which it could transform the vision to a 
more solid picture, and he thought of the people 

202 



BLACKGUARD 

who would soon be embarrassing him with their 
mouths and eyes. They were Jews of a kind that 
had rapidly spread over the south. The older 
people among them had migrated to the south 
some forty years previously and had gradually 
won large or comfortable fortunes by means of 
their thriftiness and trading abilities. They were 
now contented grand- and great-grand-parents, 
surrounded by two generations of their offspring, 
and all of them were strangely indifferent to the 
austere mysticism for which the Jewish race is so 
verbosely noted. Dreamless, voluble, self-assured, 
they angled with their religion in a half-hearted 
way and blackmailed, with money, the occasional 
flutters of mental curiosity. They had picked up 
several mannerisms of the south — softly drawling 
voices and unhurried movements — and the only 
things that distinguished them as Jews were the 
curved gusto of their faces and the fact that they 
mingled only with each other — a last, lukewarm 
trace of loyalty left by the surge of centuries 
of past incidents. 

Carl went into the house and returned, with 
paper and pencil, to his station beneath the per- 
simmon tree. He strove to write a poem to the 
woman whom he had lost. It was a torture that, 

203 



BLACKGUARD 

like a starved monster, devoured the softer spaces 
within his heart. It was as though he were 
endeavoring to compress the ruins of an entire 
world, making them narrower and narrower, more 
and more alive, until at last they formed the body 
of a woman. The effort brought him an actual 
physical pain; drops of sweat were born on his 
forehead, and his spirit reeled like a mesmerized, 
beaten drunkard. "All of life is a lie unless I 
make her appear on this paper," he cried aloud 
to the persimmon-tree leaves, for the lack of better 
gods. He detested his own futility and sought 
to avenge himself upon it. When the poem was 
finished he fell into a troubled, plundered sleep 
in which his consciousness busily made reports 
that were unheeded. He could still see the trees 
and flowers, but they were like the edge of the 
universe miraculously brought near to his eyes. 
Finally, with an effort like a straight line thrust- 
ing aside several worlds, he roused himself and 
read the poem. It failed to satisfy him; it was 
a tangle of treacherous promises and pleading 
fragments — the line of one of her arms, with 
an ashen delicateness ; the nervously boyish 
rebuke of her eyes; the tenuous defiance of her 
heart; the curled merriments of her hair — frag- 

204 



BLACKGUARD 

merits fastened to a slip of white paper and 
lacking the great surge of breath that could have 
whirled them into a speaking whole. He had 
written other poems to her and they had pro- 
duced the same result ; but still, huddled under the 
tree, he continued to write, much like a dying man 
who has no choice save to gasp for breath, only 
in his case it was a ghost that struggled to avoid 
a second death. The ghost was seeking to escape 
a final extinction. He wrote until the lengthened 
shadow of the tree told him that he must return 
to the house ; but it took him at least ten minutes 
before he could censure his face and control his 
breath. At last, with the thinly passive mask 
once more adjusted and held by the slenderest of 
threads, he walked from the garden. 

At supper he met his cousin. Dr. Joseph Rosen- 
stein, who was living at the Edleman home and 
who treated him with a suspecting aifability. 
The presence of a poet is always a vague challenge 
to those people who feel that he is somehow at 
variance with the complacent finalities of their 
lives, but who cannot draw the difference into a 
clearer antagonism. For this reason they try to 
cover their distrust with a nervous and question- 
ing amiability. After jovially advising Carl to 

205 



BLACKGUARD 

write a sonnet to a doctor, protesting to a great 
admiration for the prettiness of poetry, and asking 
Carl whether he didn't think that practical people 
were also of some use in the world, Rosenstein 
deserted the farce and began to discuss the tech- 
nical details of an operation with Dr. Edleman. 
Bertha Edleman uttered some placid remarks 
concerning the possibility of Carl's writing short 
stories that would bring him a great deal of 
money; inquired after his parents in a detailed 
but listless way ; and then, with more vigor, com- 
menced to speak of engagements, marriages and 
divorces within her immediate circle. Dr. Edle- 
man, by turns waggish and blunt, presided over 
the groups of corrupted words. Since Carl was 
anxious not to provoke these people, he stooped 
to the task of uttering pleasantly obvious remarks 
in a timid and deliberate fashion, and since they 
secretly felt that his work gave him a rank lower 
than theirs, they liked the subdued and abashed 
manner in which he spoke. 



206 



BLACKGUARD 



CHAPTER XVIII. 

After that evening he managed to protect his 
loneliness with clever words. He told the Edle- 
mans that he was looking for material for short 
stories and that he intended to roam about the 
city; and, elated at his purpose, they did not 
object. Since most of his relatives were still 
displaying their dignity, jewelry, and card-playing 
abilities at northern summer resorts, he found 
it easy to be alone. 

In the midst of his restless, empty wanderings 
he often sat for a while in a little park that 
rustled and nodded upon the top of a bluff over- 
looking a broad river. There he would stare out 
at the wide, yellowish-brown flat of water, and 
the dull green convolutions of the distant shore, 
and the water would become an ethereal canvas 
where he painted fugitive salutes to the woman 
who had fled from life's semblances. Under the 
spell of a melting daze he would sit for hours, 
almost unconscious of the fact that he held a 
body of slowly breathing flesh. At one end of 

207 



BLACKGUARD 

the park the line of benches turned sharply in 
toward the city, and this shaded place, guarded 
by bushes and trees, was known as "Rounder's 
Corner." It was frequented by thieves, drug 
peddlers, sly, lacquered women and an occasional 
vagrant, and they gathered there from twilight 
on and drained the fierce insincerities of conver- 
sation and whiskey, with sometimes the lucid 
edge of cocaine. Since Carl came to this spot 
only during the afternoons, he did not see these 
people until, one evening, he managed to absent 
himself from the Edleman home on the pretense 
of desiring a trip on a river steamboat, and 
strolled into the park. 

He sat on a bench and looked around him, trying 
to become interested in the immediate contortions 
of the fantasy. One glance told him the identity 
of the social circle into which he had dropped 
and he felt a jerk of attention, for the more 
openly rough and cruel people in life were to him 
reflections of his ghostly self, spied in a coarsely 
exaggerated mirror but none the less valid. Fresh 
from the lazy inanities of the Edleman house, he 
f felt a little baffled vigor — the ghost lamenting its 

lack of exercise — and he longed to roll once more 
in that plastic phenomenon which men insist on 

208 



BLACKGUARD 

calling mud. It was only through plastering him- 
self with the concentrated moistness of earth that 
he could force himself to believe, for a time, in 
the reality of life, and he welcomed his chance 
to repeat this process. He scanned the whisper- 
ing, laughing, loose-faced people around him and 
turned over in his mind different ways of 
approaching them, since he knew how easy it 
was to heap fuel upon their suspicions. 

A woman dropped down beside him on the 
bench. She was young in actual years — not more 
than twenty -three — but her body had been slashed 
by a premature herald of middle age and her 
rounded face was too softly plump and wrinkled 
a little under the eyes and below the chin. Youth 
and age were stiffly twined about her in lines 
that protested against each other. Her body was 
short and held a slenderness that was unnaturally 
puffed a bit here and there, giving an impression 
of incongruous inflation rather than of solid flesh. 
Her black hair was a plentiful mass of artificial 
curls and pressed against a wide straw hat, fes- 
tooned with tulips made of gaudy cloth, and she 
was clad in loosely white muslin with a crimson 
sash around her waist. The effect was that of a 
school girl playing the part of a street walker 

209 



BLACKGUARD 

in an amateur theatrical and, if you looked at her 
clothes alone, the illusion remained. It was only- 
destroyed by a glance at her face, for the outward 
costumes of reality are often unconsciously ama- 
teurish, as though they were striving to obliterate 
the professional aspect held by the faces of human 
beings — a psychic confession. Men and women 
can never quite memorize their parts in life and 
their clothes sometimes express this absent- 
mindedness. 

As he looked at this woman Carl noticed that 
her eyes were not those of the usual flesh 
trader — shifting and infantile — but were filled 
with a tense distraction. The mere sullen 
aftermath of whiskey, or the departure of 
a man? No, it almost seemed that she was 
actually brooding over emotions that had removed 
her leagues from the bench against which her 
body was pressed. Eyes are often unwitting 
traitors and they tell the truth more readily than 
the rest of the face, or words, since human beings 
are not so conscious of what their eyes are 
announcing. The two holes in the mask of the 
face are often transparent or careless admissions, 
while the remainder of the face is immersed in 
a more successful deception. Carl was interested 

210 



BLACKGUARD 

by the fact that this woman seemed to ignore 
his presence and was staring straight ahead of 
her. He began to believe that her indifference 
was genuine and he watched her more closely. 
Finally she tossed her head, with a gesture that 
expressed the defiant return of consciousness, and 
glanced at him. Then she threw him the usual 
"Hello, honey," and with a disgusted grimace he 
dismissed a certain ghostly audience within him, 
telling it that the play would not begin. For a 
while he spoke to her, throwing slang pebbles at 
her with an oppressed exactitude and brushing 
aside her lustreless insinuations, a little weary 
of the unconvincing comedy. Suddenly the stunt 
nauseated him and he fled back to his own meta- 
phoric tongue. 

"Do you see that woman passing by ?" he asked. 
"She has a face half like a twitching mouse and 
half like a poised cat. I have known such women. 
They are continually robbing certain men of 
emotions in order meekly to hand back their 
thefts to other men. With a mixture of cruelty 
and weak submission they entertain their own 
emptiness." 

He looked away from her, expecting a silence 
or the affront of cracked laughter and preparing 

211 



BLACKGUARD 

to leave. Her answer swung his head toward her. 

"You may be speaking to such a woman. Life 
has undressed me to all people except myself, and 
I don't know what I am. I think that I was bom 
to be a nun, but something kicked me down a 
dirty hallway and when I woke up there were 
many hands reaching for me and it didn't seem 
important to me whether they took me or not. 
But I think that I was bom to be a nun. . . . 
Does that interest you?" 

He stared at her with his mouth almost describ- 
ing a perfect and his eyes opened to a wild 
uncertainty. For a moment he felt that they 
were both quite dead and that her spirit had 
been ravished by waiting words. 

"In God's name, what have you been doing?" 
he cried. 

"Playing a part, with the assistance of your 
indifferent slang," she said. 

"Why?" 

"I started out by talking to you as I do to 
most men. You broke into a rough speech and I 
parried as usual. The evening was commencing 
in its usual convincing manner. Then I began 
to see that you were acting. There was a strain 
on your face, and sometimes you stopped in the 

212 



BLACKGUARD 

middle of a delicate simile. ... I knew that I 
might be wrong, so I kept on talking as you 
expected me to talk." 

On her face was the smile of a beggar whose 
tinselled metaphors have been pummeled and 
disheveled by surface realities. The plump curves 
of her face seemed to fit less snugly beneath the 
flat deceit of rouge. 

"I am a fool," he said. "Your eyes told me 
something, but I spat upon it. I think that you 
had better leave me." 

"I have no intention of leaving you," she said. 

They sat and stared at each other. 

"Do you give yourself to different men every 
night?" he asked, as though his sophistication, 
in an instant curve, had retreated to an anxious 
child long concealed within him. 

"I give them what they are able to take, and 
that is little. They want to clutch me for a time, 
but I don't feel them unless they stop my breath- 
ing. A man walks into a house, wipes his feet 
on the mat, spits into one of the cuspidors, and 
leaves with a vacant smile on his face." 

"Why do you want them to come in?" 

"They give me money for whiskey and leisure 
time in which I can read. I've never been able 

213 



BLACKGUARD 

to find a simpler way of getting these things." 

The explanation was clear and delicate to him. 

"Of course, the whiskey makes you sneer like 
a queen, and the books bring you affairs with 
better men," he said. 

"All that I want to do is to pray to my thoughts 
with appropriate words, and every night until 
two in the morning I pay for the granting of 
this wish. . . . But I think that I was bom to be 
a nun." 

"I think that I was born to be a monk, covering 
the walls of his cell with little images, all of 
them contorting his bright hatred for a world," 
he said. "I think that something also kicked me 
into a mob of prattling marionettes, leaving me 
exposed to the shower of unintended blows. I 
have often looked behind me and vainly tried to 
see who this first enemy was, but I am afraid 
that he does not return until you die." 

With their silence they continued the dialogue 
for a time. 

"Have you a man who takes your money and 
kicks you?" he asked. 

"No. Every now and then some dope peddler 
pays me a visit, but I have a gun and I know 
how to use it. I sent one of them to a hospital 

214 



BLACKGUARD 

once. They call me Crazy Georgie May and 
they're always afraid of something that they 
can't understand." 

"I have a proposition to make to you," he said. 
"We'll live together without touching each other 
and each of us will be the monk and nun that he 
should have been. I am a ghost who wants to 
return to life and you are a living person who 
wants to go back to the ghost that was kicked 
into an insincere ritual of flesh. We'll erect a 
unique monastery of thought and emotion, and 
pay for it with the slavery of your hands or 
mine. . . . Will you live with me in this fashion ?" 

"Yes, if only to see whether it can be done," 
she answered instantly. 

They rose from the bench and walked away 
together — a noble rascal and an ascetic prostitute. 



215 



Typography and Printing by Printing Service Company, Chicago. 
Electrotyped by Simpson-Bevans Company, Chicago. 



ed^l 



iN 



It 


1: ^ 

j '^v 


\i 



.n^H^^^B .^^^BVB^BBK^Sh 




>'..r: 


"^^I^B "i ^H flBfiSfHB^B 


1^ IB 


y^^^ 


'f^l'^ i^H ^BfflmLir ^^BmB 


^H 




i^^y • S^H jK^B SHL^^H^^B 


^m 


Vj^£ 


JHJ <^ H' IHflHlH^l 


xm 


■l« 


^■^ ^B^H^^HhHhH 


i^H 


WMH 


^H>H ^B^^p^of ^H9 






^^H n ^^H^^KHT ^bJu^EtJI 







ll^ 



Jm^^' 





'^^^9 


1 


1 \Lv ■ 




Ho 

[■<< 

at ^H 



o 



y^^i 






'^ 



f 




il 


t 

\ ■ 


"■MHIthi 








lUJJ 



:iii* ' 



lol 





•flcj^K 






^■^H 


u^H 



1 1 


UJ 




^fl 


o^m ^^ppP's^rtv i 


c 


1 


lU 


^■■PV i- ^ 


H&l 


o V ja^s^SSifitS^M 


c> 


1 




IB ^ERwt f "^ y 


II 


^■^a^KTjPSi 


2 


m 


s 




11 






11 


, 




mm 


X ■Bili^l^K 


►- 


1 rl 










\\M 


M 




WLJmm^S!§S!^t^m 


c 


~fl 


u 


^^Bj^HIB^l^'^H 






fl 


M 


^w\io ■■««■ ''^imp^ 


^ 


il 


> 


Hmi/ZUF VB. ift H